— for the harsh cartography of your knuckled fist.—
Naruto looked utterly ridiculous, Sakura thought. For Naruto, that was saying a lot, since this was the kid that had spent half of his childhood waltzing around in an orange jumpsuit.
(Something between nostalgia and actual pain lanced through her at the thought of a younger Team Seven, and she quickly shoved the thought aside.)
But even in standard issue gear, holding a magnifying glass up to his eye and a bubble pipe between his fingers, he managed to outdo himself. A grin was plastered on his face, and he waited for her to make an assessment. "So?"
"You look silly," Sakura said finally, appraising him with crossed arms, caught between amusement and utter disbelief. Still, found herself unraveling her tight posture and ruffling his hair affectionately.
He pouted. "But this is my investigating gear…"
She shot a sympathetic look at Shino. "I'm sorry about all this," she said, sounding genuinely regretful, and Naruto in turn kicked her in the ankle. Reacting quicker than she would have a few scant years ago, she swept her other foot under him, knocking him onto his butt, ignoring his whines.
Shino nodded complacently, unaffected by the banter. "It's quite all right, Sakura-san. Naruto is a most interesting specimen to be around."
Sakura cracked a wild grin, uncharacteristic of the past few days of nearly constant worry and let out a belly laugh she thought she wasn't capable of. "Yeah," she said through the giggles, "I suppose he is."
Naruto managed to pick himself up off of the cement, brushing away invisible dirt particles from his backside. "You guys are horrible."
Brushing the comment aside, Sakura placed her hands on her hips, very much the mother figure in that moment. "Now, don't get into any trouble, okay? This is just like a recon mission. I know it's important that you gather as much evidence as you can for Sasuke's defense, but don't overdo it. Don't harass people, pay all of your bills, and be smart. Fly under the radar for once, please. Eat healthy and get enough sleep. And if you return back with some kind of life threatening ailment, I will end you."
Naruto nodded earnestly. "Yes, yes. Stop fussing."
She squinted at him for a long moment as if trying to see through him into the future, and then dropped her posture, throwing her arms around him. "Stay safe, idiot."
Naruto buried his face in her soft pink hair, inhaling the smell of toothpaste and shampoo as his arms slid around her small waist. For someone so strong, sometimes Naruto couldn't believe how small Sakura was—all tiny bones and soft skin and fondness layered over violent tendencies. "Yeah. I will."
She slid out of his grasp, and turned to face Shino. "I know you're only along for the ride so the council can have a witness to ensure that Naruto doesn't make up information, but just…be fair. And take care of him. And take care of yourself."
At his understanding nod, she tucked her collar bone length hair behind her ear and smiled, stepping back just in time to hear the pitter patter of fast but light bare footsteps come up the road.
She didn't even have time to turn before a pajama-clad Hinata had leapt into Naruto's arms, hugging him with more ferocity than she'd seen in a long time, small fingers tight around his shoulders, legs wrapped around his hips firmly. After a long moment and some whispered words, she slid down, blush staining her cheeks scarlet, lips curled into the sweetest smile. Her toes touched the ground at last, and the look on Naruto's face was so, so soft.
Feeling suddenly terribly awkward, as if she were invading on something private, Sakura walked a little ways off near a small grove of trees by the gate, leaning against the cool trunk. The blades of grass, still slick with early morning dew, slid against her sandal-covered feet. It was quiet.
"So why are you hiding up here, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura said softly, watching the sun peek across the early morning horizon.
There was a rustle of movement from the large branch above her, the flipping of pages shut, and then the extremely delayed, "Ah! Sakura-chan, what are you doing here at such an early hour? Young ladies need their beauty rest."
She rolled her eyes, knowing as well as he did that his presence wasn't a matter of chance and coincidence.
The companionable silence enshrouded them for a long moment, and then: "I'm happy for them," she whispered. She didn't have to look at him nodding thoughtfully to know he agreed.
She watched Hinata chatter happily with Shino, grasping one of his hands tightly; watched as she tucked a note into Naruto's pocket without his knowledge; watched as they waved goodbye as they walked out through the gates for the first time since the war had ended.
The warm of the early morning dappled on her skin, and she smiled, pushing off the tree trunk, hands clasped behind her back. "Are you coming?"
Another moment passed, a rustle, the scatter of a few leaves, and then Kakashi dropped out of the branches, joining her at her side as they walked down the empty cobblestone street together.
In the crisp morning, from the top of the Hokage tower a mile away, Tsunade cradled a ceramic cup of warm ginseng tea in her palms, watching wistfully as the blond head of hair vanished past the gates into the distance.
The pinks and yellows swept through the morning sky, the sun rose overhead, and Tsunade watched as the future became the present.
The glossy metal railing outside the one way window did not give under her tight fingers, and Sakura could not decide if this situation was a blessing or not. On the one hand, she could finally be of some use, put her tedium to rest, and see Sasuke's face.
But she had to see it all—and that was something she wasn't too keen on. Tsunade's favor wasn't just for Sakura's benefit—it was so that every day, Sakura could report to her exactly what had happened, so she could monitor the situation while dealing with the rest of the problems on her plate.
She'd become the eyes of the Hokage, and while she'd represented Tsunade more than once in the past on various diplomacy trips, this was entirely too different and too real for her taste. War was one thing, but seeing someone interrogated in an enclosed space, powerless, was another.
Having that someone be Sasuke was a whole other dimension of painful.
And the worst thing about it was that honestly, not a lot was happening. They'd knocked Sasuke out and taken him from his cell to the interrogation room seamlessly, set him down in a chair, and walked out, locking the door behind them.
So Sasuke sat alone in a cement room with cement walls with a door that had no handle, chakra-sucking cuff fastened firmly around his ankle. The one wall that wasn't opaque he couldn't see through, but everyone could see him.
She'd glanced at Ibiki, sitting next to her on the stools set up outside of the room. He'd been assessing Sasuke since seven in the morning, and she'd been debating whether or not to interrupt what looked like a very concentrated effort to gain something out of Sasuke's behavior, but he beat her to it.
"I apologize for making you wait like this, Haruno. I'm sure this isn't what you envisioned your time with the Torture and Interrogation Force would be like."
Her face pinked momentarily at the unexpected address. She'd barely spoken two words to Ibiki in her entire life. Most of the reason she'd been so hesitant to talk was because she was terribly intimidated by him.
Even now, glancing at his numerous scars and his imposing build, she wasn't sure what to make of the man. All that was keeping her there was a good word from Tsunade, the badge dangling around her neck, and Ino's reassurances that Ibiki wasn't as bad as he'd seemed.
She fumbled for words. "Oh, oh, no. It's fine. I didn't really…have expectations, since I've never been down here before," she explained, gesturing around her.
The underground location beneath the Hokage tower was the last place she'd expected for the interrogations to take place, but in some twisted way it made sense—just within reach of the Hokage, all of the guards, and in the center of the village—the hardest place in the village to escape from.
He made a noncommittal noise, never taking his eyes off of Sasuke's form. Even the briefest shift in Sasuke's posture made Ibiki pick up the pen and scribble things down on the clipboard in his hand.
"What are you doing, anyways?" she asked finally, striving to find common ground.
"Cataloguing behavior. It's important to know how a person acts before you ask them sensitive questions. Those supposed cues that indicate whether people are lying is utter nonsense—people exhibit those behaviors whenever they're nervous, lying or otherwise. That is why it's important to have groundwork to understand what they're most like naturally."
It was the most teacher-like that she'd ever heard Ibiki sound, and this strange sort of normalcy about him was incredibly…disarming. Maybe this was how he did it, she pondered, by being unexpected.
"So how long do you have to do this for?" she inquired, nodding towards Sasuke's slumped form over the table.
He finally took a brief moment to tear his eyes away from the one way window to glance at her out of the corner of his eye, dark black boring into her skull. "Do you have somewhere to be?"
Sakura, caught off guard, froze as the hairs on the back of her neck rose in spite of herself. "No…no, I don't. I was just…wondering…" she trailed off, the mix of apprehension and the curling sensation of discomfort rubbing into her spine.
It had been a long time since someone had reduced her in this way, and she couldn't help but feel like a foolish little girl in front of Morino Ibiki. Twelve all over again, in those split seconds.
Grappling with this and trying to find the strong part of her that had vanished at the drop of a hat in front of an imposing man with a trench coat, she'd almost missed his answer. "Breathe, Haruno. We don't know each other that well, but I suspect by the end of this we'll get along just fine. I've heard great things about you, and I suspect you'll live up to those expectations."
They lapsed into silence again, and she wasn't sure if he saw her nod, but she wasn't about to say anything more, not when her throat felt raw and the thought of speaking now made her want to vomit.
Thirty minutes passed, and then he spoke again. "All right. That's just fine for now. This is how it's going to be for the indeterminable future: I'm going to switch off interrogators, and they're all going to take sections of his memories. Fifteen years is a long time to go through, and so you'll see some familiar faces come and go, but you and I will be the only two people here for every session.
"I'll be outside this wall with you, taking notes and assisting in the tough spots, and after it's done, we'll have Uchiha cleaned and transported back to his cell while you, me, and whichever operative will sit down and compile information," he held her gaze this time, and in that half hour of silence, she'd regained enough backbone to meet his stony gaze with confidence. Nobody cowed Haruno Sakura. "Understood?"
With a decisive, affirmative nod from her, he continued on. "You have full authority to question and cease anything you feel uncomfortable with, medically speaking. Anything you have to suggest, outside of the medical arena, will be taken with the weight as though the Hokage herself said it, so don't be afraid to speak up. And of course, after each of these sessions, you'll write a report to Tsunade and I'll write a report to Tsunade. We'll give Uchiha a few days to recuperate at which point you'll become his primary care physician, and I'll get a break until we repeat the process."
"Sounds good," she agreed, folding her hands into her lap.
And with that, Ibiki stood from his stool, unsealed the door with a series of complex hand signs, and strode forward into the sealed room with an air of unbridled authority.
Sasuke glanced up when the bulky man shouldered through the door, pulled another chair from the nothingness, and sat down in front of him. Crossing his arms, he muttered, "Took you long enough."
Ibiki didn't bother to respond, looking intently at the young man sitting in front of him before leaning back in his seat with a sigh. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say, do, think, or remember can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you at the public expense—"
Sasuke cut him off, voice gravelly from disuse. "I don't want an attorney."
There was a long pause. "Be that as it may, do you understand—"
"—your rights, and are you willing to proceed regardless?"
Ibiki lips pulled up into a gross representation of a smile, scars and previous wounds marring his face, pulling his features into all the wrong directions. "Very well. We'll start at the very beginning."
And then, pulling his hands out from in his pockets, he bit his thumb until blood oozed dark red, wrote some unfamiliar character on Sasuke's forehead, traced an identical one on his own palm, and began. The bright glow of chakra flashed for a moment along the lettering, the blood vanished, and Ibiki opened his eyes, maintaining eye contact again.
To Sakura, it was apparent that something was wrong from the get go. Not because Sasuke was still swathed in bandages, not because the small, spiderlike lines that traveled up his arms were still visible, but because as soon as, she presumed, Ibiki entered Sasuke's mind, Sasuke's arms uncrossed and gripped the armrests on his chair.
"Your mother, huh?" were the first words that Ibiki spoke. "She was the only one that paid any attention to you."
Sasuke's jaw tightened. "No."
"Hmm? Oh, yes, I see. Your brother. That one's long dead and gone. By your hands, I reckon? The apple does never fall far from the tree."
There was no response, but Sasuke's eyes began to narrow. "Well," Ibiki grunted. "We'll see in due time." A pause, and then the sounds of struggle. "What…are you trying to push me out of?" he ground out between clenched teeth.
Again, no response, but the veins on Sasuke's arms began to stand at attention, and sharp knuckles protruded harshly against his skin, peeking through the carefully wrapped bandages around his blackened palms.
"She used to sing to you," Ibiki said finally, sounding like whatever had been constricting his abilities let up.
"Your mother, Uchiha. She used to sing you to sleep."
Sasuke blinked, and then everything in him relaxed. "How do you know about—" he began, stopping midsentence, and Ibiki frowned.
In a burst of intuition, Sakura put the pieces together—the tension, the confusion, the relaxation—and understood what was happening. Sliding off of her stool, she rushed to unseal the door, and pulled it open with more force than was necessary, the heavy metal hitting the wall behind it with a thud.
"Anterograde amnesia," she blurted out, standing in the doorway.
"Come again?" Ibiki said after a beat, taking notice of the way that Sasuke straightened up at the sound of her voice.
"I'm fairly certain you're not going to get the reactions you want out of him because he's forgetting things as they're happening. He might need a while longer to recuperate. I didn't anticipate this being a problem because you were going through his long term memories, and those should be untouched, but since you're talking to him, everything you're saying is basically floating in his mind for maybe a few minutes before leaving again. Anterograde amnesia: partial or complete inability to form new memories caused by damage to the hippocampus," she said in one breath, chest heaving with the effort.
Sasuke looked mildly amused, and not having to turn around to identify the person speaking, said casually, "How very textbook of you, Sakura."
The room lulled into a silence, and Sakura closed her eyes, not bothering to conceal the prickle of nostalgia beneath her eyelids. "You know me, Sasuke-kun," she breathed, finally. "You know me."
"So tell me, Shino," Naruto cajoled as they ambled up the path to the border of Fire, not in any rush. Despite all the April showers they'd been having, the sky was the lightest blue it had been in a long time, and Naruto was positively insistent about enjoying the sunshine while it lasted. "What do your eyes look like?"
Shino stared at Naruto for a long moment, raising an eyebrow. "Come again?"
"Well, you're always wearin' those sunglasses, and I have a running bet going with Lee about who can get you to take 'em off first."
Shino turned his head slowly to the right, an incredulous look on his face, and wondered what kind of patience the rest of Squad Seven had been blessed with to put up with this for years.
"Basically," Naruto explained, "You're the new Kakashi-sensei. Except you have the opposite parts of your face covered."
"Well, I mean do you wear them when you shower? Do you wear them to sleep? Do you wear them at night? What about when it's raining? Are they actually a secret gadget that allows you to look into peoples' souls?" A pause, and then a gasp of understanding. "Are they x-ray goggles?"
"Have you lost your mind." It wasn't a question.
"Oh, man, Shino, have you just been peekin' at what the ladies look like beneath their clothes all this time? And you haven't been sharing?"
"You've lost your mind. Why do I think that? Because you think sunglasses are x-ray goggles," Shino deadpanned.
"What's wrong with me?! What's wrong with you? Tell me, Shino," he began again, a shit eating grin spreading across his face. "What does Mei Terumi really look like?" he whispered conspiratorially.
"I can't even tell if you're joking or if you're actually that stupid."
"Wow. Wow. I see, Shino. I see how it is. Won't even share secrets with a fellow comrade, a brother in arms!"
Shino was about to make another sarcastic remark when a lady dropped out of the trees in front of them, stopping them in their path. "Papers, please."
Naruto dug around his pockets, pulling out some sort of crumpled identification forms, and placed them in the lady's awaiting hand. She squinted at the small font, pushing her indigo hair back behind her ears, and then glanced at the two of them, matching the photos to their respective owners.
"All right. You can go. You're now passing the border between Fire and Sound, and as citizens of Konohagakure, it is urged that you behave well, since tensions are still high between the two nations."
"Yes, ma'am," Naruto saluted, and Shino nodded sincerely.
"Thank you," he added. She nodded back and leapt back into the lush trees, disappearing from sight instantaneously. The unlikely duo continued on their way without any words for a while.
Of course, it wouldn't last.
"So, Shino," and the man in question resisted the urge to groan. "What did she look like?"
"Better than you. Why? Because she's not an idiot." he snapped, and the squawk of horror that came out of Naruto's mouth satisfied him in a way that he didn't think even the best dango stand could.
The rest of the travel to the main village, needless to say, was done in silence. Blissful, beautiful silence.
Shino could hear the small steps of the caterpillar sleuthing along a leaf, the rustle of a beetle's wings, and the sound of his own breathing for a meditative thirty minutes until he was forced to break it.
"Do you have the file?"
"Wha—oh, yeah. It's in my backpack," Naruto gestured behind him, stopping in his tracks for a split second to slip one strap off of his arm to swing the whole pack around to his front. Clumsy fingers struggled with the zipper for a few seconds before finally yanking the manila folder out, slightly wrinkled but no worse for the wear. "So I think we should just go around and show the photo to some people, hope someone knows something, and just…wing it."
Shino stared at Naruto. "That is not a plan," he pointed out.
"Yeah, I know, 's why I said wing it. C'mon, Shino, get that stick out of your butt. Be spontaneous."
"But being methodical usually works better—" he interrupted, rubbing the side of his face tiredly.
Naruto shook his head, though, determined. "How would you know until you've tried my way out? I promise it'll be fine. If we don't find something by tonight, we can do your plan."
Shino shoved his hands in his pockets, then, resigned. There was only so long you could argue with the exuberant blond before tiring out. "Lead the way."
They passed through the last barrier of trees, trunks thinning out and giving way to the shoddy remains of a city. Everything was one level buildings with aluminum roofs, rundown shacks, and seedy people waiting on street corners. Oto didn't even try to hide the fact that there was almost nothing left—there was no shiny veneer on the dirty remains of a home.
Illegal drugs and alcohol and herbs and weaponry—all black market, impoverished families, rundown neighborhoods, and stale foods at what could have been a grand marketplace. An old man with rotting tomatoes in his basket, a lady bartering for bananas that were three times their reasonable price.
And giant vacant holes leading to the underground—the echoes of what had been long ago.
Naruto exhaled heavily. "This…"
"Is why you need a plan," Shino finished, crossing his arms pointedly.
But Naruto shook his head firmly. "This is worth fighting for."
That was not what Shino was expecting. "What?"
"Sasuke. He's worth fighting for, and I'm going to do everything I can to save him." And with that, he strutted across the gravel street, making a beeline for the greasy pub at the corner, ignoring the wary eyes of the villagers looking upon the man in a bright orange jacket.
With a heavy sigh and a heavier glance to the beetle that perched on his finger, he followed after him.
Darkness had fallen, and luck had evaded them at every turn. The barman had flat out refused to talk about Sasuke, shifting away and scuttling to get someone a refill when they hadn't asked for one. After that, he'd refused to come near them unless they had looked away.
The vegetable vendor had glanced at the photo, gripped it tightly enough to crease the edges, and, eyes filmy and unfocused, had looked up and said, very confidently, that the person in question looked quite like a papaya.
The lady with mud stained bare feet sitting against the crumbling brick wall and the other woman with the smeared makeup and hooker heels had both said he was handsome, but didn't elaborate any further, other than staring at the photo like it was something magical.
And the one filthy kid they'd managed to find skulking around the sewer trying to reach for the fallen coins at the bottom hadn't been old enough to remember, but they'd given him money anyways with instructions to buy himself a full meal and some clean clothes.
Hours had passed without luck, and the problem was that every person that had had the flicker of recognition in their eyes refused to say anything.
It was like the whole town was still stuck under Kabuto's thumb, as if they were terrified that at every street corner people were listening and watching. Children ducked behind their parents, and parents ducked behind houses.
Naruto, who was used to people eventually warming up to him, was feeling rather put off. His hair was a mess, having been tugged at and abused by worrying hands since early afternoon, and even Shino, who didn't really care either way, was beginning to be peeved about the slow struggle for information.
"Can't you use your creepy crawlies to go find someone who's willing to talk?" The pair ambled back down the main street trying to find new meat to question, but everyone had scattered like crows upon their arrival.
"Perhaps we ought to take a break and reevaluate our information gathering strategy." he replied tonelessly, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his coat. "Why? Because this isn't working."
Naruto whipped his head around, finger pointed in accusation. "Are you suggesting that winging it isn't working?"
"That is, in fact, exactly what I am suggesting. How astute of you, Naruto-san."
"That's blasphemous!" he shrieked, throwing his hands up in the air. "We at least have to take a break before we make these kind of life altering decisions."
"…a break. What a novel idea." The biting sarcasm in his tone wasn't well hidden at all, but either Naruto had ignored it or he simply didn't notice.
Naruto grinned, eyes lighting up. "I propose we take a break and grab dinner and talk this over."
Shino resisted the urge to smother himself in his trench coat, and nodded curtly, following the overactive buffoon who bounded along, a clear sense of direction in his steps. Shino should have known better than to be surprised that Naruto had already scoped out and chosen the restaurant of choice.
The glowing sign on top of the run down eatery made it immediately clear as to the reasoning behind his choice. Ramen.
Briefly, he wondered how Sakura let him eat so much without complaint. It was one thing for Naruto to addicted to absurd amounts of salt and noodles, but from what he had seen of Sakura, she was picky about others eating healthily.
He didn't hesitate to let his thoughts be known as they slid into a surprisingly clean looking booth. "Does Sakura-san not mind that you're eating yourself into an early grave?"
A waiter came around and gave them menus that looked as old as time itself, but Naruto didn't even glance over at them, eyes widening in horror. "Oh please don't tell her I'm eating ramen here. She'll rip off my balls in my sleep. I promised her I'd cut down to twice a week, and I've already filled the quota."
Shino blinked. "It's Tuesday."
"I know," Naruto mumbled into his hands, clutching at his face in agony. "I don't know how I'm gonna survive. She wants me to eat broccoli. Broccoli! It's horrible."
Shino snorted. "What a nightmare."
"Thank you," he replied emphatically. "It's nice that someone understands."
The waiter sidled up to the table again, looking anxious, fingers tapping against his notepad. "Are you read to order yet?"
"Wha—?" Naruto looked up, and after processing, "Oh! Oh, uh, yeah. I'll have three miso ramen. And my friend here will have shrimp tempura."
Shino blinked, opening his mouth. "Actually, I—"
"And to drink?"
"No, actually, water—"
Nodding overenthusiastically, the skinny kid scuttled back behind the swinging doors to the kitchen, squeaking as he went, "Right away!"
"So! Discussion. So you're being a hater and want to change our method of investigation. I think we should continue doing what we're doing." Naruto slapped the file on the table, opening it up to the photograph and what little information they have gathered. "If you see here, we have found 15 people who looked like they recognized him. One even said his name. We're getting close! If we quit now, we'll never get anything."
Shino rubbed his temples, the beginning of a headache coming on. "Naruto-san, this is why Hokage-sama never lets you lead teams. Why? Because you are incompetent."
"Hey! I am not! For your information, it's because I'm still listed as a genin and Sakura-chan outranks me—"
The kitchen doors swung open again, and this time a jovial man in his early thirties and the beginnings of gray hair strutted towards their table. "Hi, there, folks. I'm real sorry about this, but we've run out of shrimp and our shipment from Kirigakure is about two weeks past its delivery date. So whichever of you ordered shrimp tempura is going to have to choose something…" he trailed off, having spotted the photograph on the table. "…else."
Even Naruto caught on to the recognition fast. "Do you know this man?" Naruto blurted, eagerly sliding the photograph closer to the edge of the table.
And for the first time since they'd arrived in the dingy, rundown down, someone smiled at them. "Yes. Yes I do."
The air was damp and musky, floor slick with moisture as Sakura treaded carefully along the Salt Pit. There were few places invisible to the world, and this maximum security prison was among them.
Built on the inside of the Hokage Mountain in a series of natural caverns, it was perhaps Konoha's biggest secret. Named for the underground series of boiling saltwater rivers that sliced through the interior, the Salt Pit may as well have been a black hole in the universe. If you fell in the river, assuming you didn't die from being horribly burned first, the current was strong enough to drown you, your body eventually washing up near the security checkpoint a mile away.
No one had ever escaped—a track record that Ibiki had boasted while showing her around.
Sakura edged around a set of stalagmites, hand braced against the wall, chakra pulsing in her fingertips to keep her from slipping over the edge, and eventually found herself on wider ground, the caverns splitting again. Unfamiliar with the place and hesitant about prior instructions, she stared at all three of the potential paths warily, the loud rushing of water behind her clouding her thoughts as she walked slowly towards the leftmost one.
Almost immediately she was engulfed in complete darkness, and then, a few minutes later, warm light. Two sconces were built into the opposite walls, and between then, a thick glass wall barricaded off Sasuke's prison cell.
Two masked guards greeted her with nods, one of them using a quick series of hand seals before pressing his palm against the metal edging of the wall. The door slid open, she stepped inside, and they both saluted before walking off, the second calling as he went, "I'll be back in a few hours, Haruno-san."
The door slammed shut, the creases where the opening had been melting away as if there was no opening there to begin with.
And in the back, slumped against the wall underneath the small, blacked out window, was Sasuke. He looked more haggard than she'd ever seen him, and even though the shrouded corner he'd backed himself into offered barely any light, she could still make out the faint spider web marks weaving their way up his right arm.
His knees were pulled up, an arm resting on each one, and his head lolled against the wall. She wasn't even sure if he was conscious.
Walking forward decisively, she stopped just in front of him and knelt, her own knees brushing his standard issue seamless, pocket-less pants. The dark blue fabric was coarse, and it was a testament to his years of experience that when she reached for his wrist to take his pulse, he grabbed hers first.
He dropped his head back forward, eyes opening blearily just long enough to recognize her before the vice grip on her relaxed and fell away, faint finger imprints on her skin the only evidence of him touching her. "Water?" he grunted.
She shook her head. "Not yet, Sasuke-kun."
She picked up his limp arm again, fingers pressed to the vein in his wrist as her dominant hand seamlessly reached for the already-filled syringe in her pack, and seeing the bulge of his vein in the crook of his elbow, slid the needle into his skin.
He tensed as she pressed down on the plunger, and then his lips parted in a sigh. "Pain killer?"
She nodded. "I figured, after lightning…" she trailed off. "This next one is a vaccine, though. Tetanus."
She worked in a comfortable silence after that, going through the motions of changing the bandages around his horribly scorched hands, pressing cool healing chakra into his cells, only stopping whenever he asked the same question again and again, looking at her each time as if she'd only just arrived.
Something inside her clenched every time.
She had her hands pressed to his heart, assessing the condition that the hospital had left him in. Despite being in a dingy cell, the floor slick with moisture, despite the fact that he trembled ever so slightly with every movement, despite the bouts of forgetfulness he exhibited every ten minutes or so, his heart beat strongly.
He was warm, so warm.
She finally drew back, allowing him to pull his shirt back down as she turned around, reaching into the backpack she had with her and unearthing a water bottle.
"Water?" he mumbled again, eyes closed, and she pressed the bottle into his hand, waiting a few seconds longer than normal for his fingers to close around it. He fumbled with the cap, and then finally, pressed the opening to his dry lips, guzzling.
"Slowly," she warned. "Or you'll throw up."
He grunted in response, taking a last sip before setting it on the ground beside him. Efficiently, she replaced the cap on the bottle before digging around in backpack again. "You hungry?"
She nodded, sliding a bento out from her backpack towards him. "I made food. Figured they wouldn't have fed you all that much."
With a surprising amount of dexterity for someone who struggled with a water bottle cap not a minute earlier, he popped open the lid easily, reaching for the chopsticks she was holding out. And then he finally looked at the food inside, pausing very briefly as he stared at the upper left hand corner.
Earlier that afternoon, Sakura had severely questioned her own sanity. But as she was stirring a pan, she couldn't take her eyes off of the fruit basket on her kitchen countertop. Something inside her was helpless to resist, and so there, in the corner of the bento box, were sliced up red apples.
He dragged his gaze away from the food, staring back at her for a long moment, and she finally let herself really look at his face.
Stubble had begun to appear along his jaw, and face looked sunken. There wasn't a time in her life that she had seen him look quite so exhausted, and yet…his eyes, the exact shade she'd remembered them to be, were calm. Peaceful. And suddenly, she was overcome with the urge to cry.
"Thank you," he finally said, and a smile tugged at her mouth, eyes slightly damp.
"Mhmm," she managed, not trusting herself with real words.
And in the dark hollow of the back of a prison, Sakura rearranged herself, leaning against the wall next to Sasuke, and watched him pop an apple slice in his mouth, the light from the sconces reflecting in his dark, dark eyes.
"You know, Naruto's out looking for evidence to exonerate you. With Shino, actually. I don't know if you remember Shino…" she trailed off.
His eyes were closed, but she knew he was listening. "Why aren't you with him?" he finally replied.
She shrugged. "I didn't want to be. I've got more important things to do."
"This. Sitting in this cave with you. Among other things."
He cracked open his eyes, staring at her peculiarly. "You turned down a mission to play doctor for a patient who doesn't actually need a doctor?"
Her eyes turned flinty, and the anger that she was so well known for bubbled to the surface. "I'm not 'playing doctor'. I'm not sure if you're aware of the extent of your injuries, but you're dangerously close to death, even sitting here. For all we know you could have a heart attack right now because you foolishly decided that the best way to fix the world was to turn yourself into a martyr," she spat. "The reason I'm 'playing doctor' is because all of you are too fucking stupid to not hurt yourselves."
Sasuke stared at her for a long moment. "Hm." And then his eyes slid shut again.
She huffed, frustrated, and they lapsed into tense silence.
"You know, I worked really hard to get here, and people still, even today, sometimes look at me and think I'm like some wet nurse. I learned how to knit flesh together just the same as I learned how to take it apart. I can crush boulders with my pinky. I was the first person to ever kill a member of Akatsuki. And I can take lives silently and full of pain just as much as I can rebuild them from scratch."
He cracked his eyes open. "Hm."
A minute's worth of silence lapsed before Sakura broke it.
"Right now," she said, her voice finally muted again, her breathing evened out after her outburst, "I'm recreating the cells inside of your hand. You basically tore through your skin and fat and down into your muscle, which is why your palms are varying shades of black." Her hand skimming over his knuckles, glowing sea green as she watched areas pink up again, warm with blood flow and new life.
She paused, not waiting to see if he remembered what she was talking about anymore. "Tsunade-shishou taught me a lot of things. She taught me how to break the earth, how to bring back the dead, and how to avoid destructive procedures like cutting away all this," she said, gesturing to his hands, "and letting you be an amputee."
She inhaled heavily then, the soft glow lighting their faces. "But I think the most important thing she taught me was to not apologize for being human. She taught me that life was strength, that walking into a village and seeing living, breathing human beings is infinitely more valuable than seeing the destructive results of a jutsu. She taught me that it's easy to tear things apart, but the hard part comes in putting them back together," she finished quietly, looking at him under her eyelashes, and wondered if he thought of Team Seven like she did.
And for once, he didn't ask for a recap of what had happened. The creases around his mouth and eyes had smoothed out some, and the dark shadows under his eyes seemed lighter.
Unbidden, her fingers came up to feel at the soft skin of his eyelid, tracing down the slope of his nose and to lines that could either have resulted from frowns or laughter. "She taught me a lot of things, but the one thing I learned on my own was that I won't apologize for feeling, be it happiness or sadness or anger.
"I think people sometimes think that strength means being able to face fear without backing down. But I think strength means being able to face life without crumbling to dust. Being able to hold yourself up under the weight of overwhelming loss and despair and cruelty. Strength is being able to find your way out afterwards, being able to find a place to smile," she continued, tracing around the rough stubble near his lips, "and a place to love."
His eyes slipped shut as she traced over his brow bone, along the planes of his left cheekbone, around the shell of ear and down his jaw. Sakura didn't know how or when it happened, but she found her heart thudding louder than it had in a long time.
"You know, I never stopped loving you."
She felt his facial muscles tense slightly, and she wondered if he'd forget again soon, trying valiantly to convince herself that she wouldn't let her eyes sting when he inevitably asked what she was talking about. She exhales. "I thought I maybe hated you for a while, and sometimes," she confessed in the dark, "I can still feel your fingers around my neck, feel the way I felt death in your touch. I hated you not for trying to kill me, because I did the same to you. But I hated you for placing the final nail in the coffin. For leaving.
"But it always came back, fast and hard like the strong winds in the early spring. I can't stop it. I can't stop myself. And I'm not ashamed of it. Tsunade taught me that putting things together was harder than taking them apart, and I learned that love is not a weakness." Her voice shook, and her hands fell away from his face into her lap.
"You're a fool," he remarked finally in the softest tone she'd ever heard from him.
"Maybe," she conceded, "but there are worse fools to be."
Ten minutes passed, the two guards returned, and Sasuke did not forget.
notes: In no particular order, for Les, TK, Sonya, Nicole, and you. I love you all so, so much that I can't even begin to describe it.
I'm awful, I know. There's really no excuse for tardiness like mine, but in my defense, this chapter was like seven thousand words, which is basically the longest chapter I've ever written in my entire life. Thank you for being so, so patient with me.
Happy new year! Another revolution around the sun feels like a good way to move forward with this story.