To her credit, Sakura hadn't started crying.
She simply stared listlessly at Naruto's usually sunny face, now slack in his state of unconsciousness. The silence stretched out, taut and unfamiliar. Kakashi didn't know what to say, didn't want to make the situation worse, so he remained seated opposite to the two and just watched. Sakura's bright eyes were dull and unseeing even as she watched her friend intensely for any sign of movement, one hand on his chest and the other supporting his head. Kakashi could imagine the scene playing in her head was similar to his own. Those dark-as-death eyes blinking out like a light. The chuckle that died on his lips as she struck him. The threat, promise of return, whispered in her ear as he fell. The jounin sighed heavily and stood, rolling his stiff shoulders.
She didn't glance up at him, just emitted a sound of recognition. Her gaze was still firmly trained on Naruto's flickering eyelids, searching for comfort in the familiar face.
"Sakura, we need to leave. Sai and Kiba have sent warning that his underlings are on our trail."
"Alright." Her hands moved to lift Naruto, cradle him closely in an almost child-like fashion. Kakashi might have found it amusing at any other time. "I'll go up ahead and make sure nobody is going to surprise us. The others should meet up with you soon. You're fine to carry him?" She tightened her grip on the unconscious man. "Yes, Kakashi."
They travelled in silence. Kakashi remained a few metres in front, scouting for any sign of attack. Sai and Kiba had immobilised the three they'd seen, but the chance more could come was still pressing. Kiba had offered to carry Naruto when they'd all met up, but Sakura refused to let go of him. It was understandable. Sakura had changed a lot in the three years Naruto had been training with Jiraiya - she'd put the thought of her old team out of her mind, and sought out Tsunade to become stronger than she could have ever imagined. Combined with her supernatural strength, intelligence, medical ninjutsu, and natural resistance to genjutsu, she had become an incredibly respected and powerful kunoichi in her own right. Her tanned skin now sported scars, marks- proof of her hard work. She and Ino had trained together and worked together and become so close that nobody was remotely surprised when Ino publicly announced to damn near the whole village that they were an item. But she'd never forgotten Sasuke. Or rather, never forgiven. After he'd left all those years ago, Naruto had held her and they sobbed together, lamenting what could have been, what they couldn't be for him. They'd both found a way to recover, finding strength, supporting each other, moving on. Sakura let go of the childish fancy she'd entertained, but she knew it was far more than that for Naruto. He couldn't forget Sasuke.
Sasuke wouldn't let him.
Only when Naruto was hooked up to machinery and laying peacefully in the hospital did Sakura let herself cry. With her head in her hands, alone, she wept quietly.
What if they hadn't found the hideout? What if he came back?
What would Naruto do when he woke up?
What… What if he tried to go back?
She bit back a sob. No. He couldn't. She wouldn't let him go back to that place, to that man... If she closed her eyes, she saw Naruto, his eyes dull and his expression blank, kneeling at the feet of that bastard. The gleaming eyes and challenging smirk on his pale face, daring her to try and take Naruto away. His fingers in those sunny locks, patting the other man's head like one would with a dog. And all the while staring her and Kakashi in the face, reading their carefully schooled expressions like open books.
"How kind of you to visit, Kakashi. Sakura, dear. Is this a rescue attempt or a suicide mission?"
His voice had been lilting, full of a humour that seemed out of place, but his eyes were as cold as ever. That icy glare seemed to cut right through her, and she’d felt cowed until she’d remembered why there were there. For Naruto. To rescue the boy that had become a hero, only to have his life stolen by the devil he wanted to call his best friend.
A voice shocked Sakura out of her reverie, and she jerked up to see Ino racing down the white hallway.
“Sakura! I should have been here earlier, I didn’t know- oh, are you alright, sweetheart?”
Sakura fell into Ino’s arms, breathing in the soft smell of flowers and cleanness and safety. She could hear her lover fretting and wanted to say she was fine, but it was all she could do to not burst into tears again. Those cold eyes were everywhere, and she started shivering, feeling that awful gaze upon her even when she knew it was impossible. Her ears were still ringing with his cruel laughter, and that last haunting murmur.
“Don’t think you’ve won. I’ll return for him.”
Naruto woke slowly in the bright white light of the hospital. He blinked and tried to stretch his stiff, sore limbs, but his body felt alien and he couldn’t move properly. His tried to call out, but his mouth was too dry and nothing came out but a pathetic croak. Fear mounting, he began struggling, twisting desperately.
“Naruto, you idiot- stop wriggling, you’ll fall! What are you doing?”
That voice… Naruto tried to focus his bleary eyes, but he only saw a pink blur. His eyes began aching and he closed them again, willing his mouth to work.
“Yer really…” He coughed, his throat protesting at the sudden use. “Really pink…”
The person let out a huff, sounding tired. And then all of sudden, he was being embraced, his whole body warming at the gentle touch and his senses flooded with familiarity. The flowery scent, soft hair, hard muscles under scarred skin.
“S-Sakura…? Is it- it’s really you?”
He didn’t hear an answer, but he felt hot tears on his shoulder and squeezed the girl tighter, revelling in the feeling. All he could remember was feeling cold for the longest time, freezing stone wall and cool, pale hands on his face… The girl stepped away and dragged a hand across her eyes. Naruto focussed and felt his cheeks stretch in a grin. “Sakura.” She smiled in return, albeit tearfully. “Naruto. I’m so glad you’re back.”
Naruto wanted to answer, but the door slid open with a hiss, revealing an imposing woman. She ran her eyes over Naruto’s bed and the equipment beside him before raising her gaze to look at Sakura, who gave a polite bow and gestured to Naruto.
“His memory seems mostly unaffected, Lady Tsunade.”
“I should think so. Shizune has been doing some research, and I believe Naruto will make a full recovery.”
Naruto jolted as a feeling of familiarity hit him. “Oh! Granny Tsunade, is that right?” The woman’s mouth twisted in a wry smile.
“Still disrespectful as ever… I’ll give you granny!” She crossed the room in a few quick strides and raised her hand threateningly, but before Naruto even had a chance to wince or defend himself, she’d instead pulled him into a firm embrace. He could feel her shaky breathes, the tremble in her arms. He leant away to look into her honey-brown eyes and, seeing the tears gathering there, began to suddenly suspect that something was very wrong. People usually weren’t so much sobbing as yelling at him when he woke up in hospitals… and what was that about memory?
“Hey, hey, Sakura, d’ya wanna tell me what’s going on? Who’s cuttin’ onions?”
Rather than the desired reaction, Sakura’s eyes filled with tears again. She swiped at her eyes and took a deep breath. But before she could say anything, Tsunade held up a manicured hand. “We need to let him rest so his body can recover. We’ll focus on his mental health and patching up memory when I know he isn’t going to pass out on us at any given moment.” Naruto wanted to protest, but he did feel his eyelids getting heavier. “Fine wi’ me…” He murmured, settling into the blankets. He felt Sakura tuck the blankets closer around his chin as he slowly drifted to sleep.
Tsunade ran a check over the equipment before motioning for Sakura to follow her out the door. The moment they had stepped out, Sakura embraced Tsunade tightly and let the sobs she hid for Naruto’s sake to shudder her body. The elder simply sighed and held her, murmuring softly until Sakura stepped back with a bowed head. She began to apologise, but Tsunade stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder. “No need. These past months have been difficult for all of us, but most especially you, Sakura. You have behaved in a commendable way. I have no doubt that if it weren’t for you, we may not have ever seen him again.” Sakura couldn’t bring herself to look Tsunade in the eyes, lest she see that warmth and understanding and start crying again. She straightened her skirt and nodded sharply. “I trust, uh…” The young woman huffed out a sigh and swiped at her eyes, then spoke again. “Kakashi has given you his mission report?” Tsunade’s voice was sombre when she answered. “Yes. But I’m afraid I’ll have to ask one of you, too. Not by today. As soon as you can. Talk to Ino. She’ll help.” They both, without really meaning to, had turned to watch Naruto sleeping peacefully in the hospital bed. Sakura watched his chest rise and fall, reminding herself this is real. This is real and you did it. You brought him back. He’s safe. He is safe.
Sakura met Tsunade’s gaze once more and nodded solemnly before turning to leave. She felt the older woman’s gaze on her back, but she didn’t turn back. She could never turn back.