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i.

She learned her numbers far later than most children did. When she was very young it didn’t really occur to her to wonder why; the idea of soulmates was a hard thing to wrap your mind around when one is only just learning to speak and the entirety of one’s world is wrapped up in the arms that tuck you in to bed at night. The love of her parents was something Sakura had never once had to question so when all the other children began learning their numbers and she did not, it was easy to take their placating words at face value.

“Of course we’ll teach you dear,” they said. “But not yet. You’re not ready.”

Because she trusted her parents and she was young enough to still believe that they knew everything, Sakura didn’t question them. At least, she didn’t then.

When she grew old enough to leave the house alone and follow the well-trodden path from her home to the Yamanaka compound, Sakura finally learned something which made her question the wisdom of waiting. Ino’s sleeves were proudly rolled up to display the golden ink on her forearm and she was grinning as she read the numbers out to a confused Sakura.

“It’s their birthday, see?” Sakura took a closer look and wrinkled her nose.

“My birthday?”

“Nooooo.” Ino poked her in the forehead she was so self-conscious of. “It’s your soulmate’s birthday. Since I was born with it on my arm that means that my soulmate is older than me – that’s why it was already there, because he was already there. And see, here, this number means he was born in November.”

“But how do you know that?”

Ino grinned, happy to keep showing off. “All the months have numbers. November is the number eleven month!”

Humming in thought, Sakura tugged up the long sleeves her parents insisted that she always wear. For years she had been content to simply wait until the academy to learn her numbers but now she found herself curious. As long as she could remember, this golden writing had decorated her skin; had she been born with it too? Were these important questions? If they were important then she was annoyed with herself for not thinking to ask about it all.

For a moment she considered shoving her arm under Ino’s nose and demanding that her friend tell her what the numbers meant but after thinking about it she pulled her sleeve back down and hid them away. She wanted to be able to read them for herself. It was her soulmate so it should be her discovery.

As Ino chattered on about trying to convince her father to look in to personnel files to help her find her soulmate, Sakura quietly snuggled down in to the fluffy pink bedspread she was sitting on. As soon as she got home that night she was going to have to have a stern talk with her parents. Everyone else got to learn their numbers; she should be allowed to as well!

 

 

ii.

Sometimes it didn’t pay to be a ‘smart girl’.

It didn’t take very long for Sakura to get the hang of her numbers and as soon as she did, she regretted it. At first she hadn’t understood why the number on her arm was a bad thing. Still young, the concepts of dates and centuries were still a bit much for her to wrap her head around.

When she did understand, however, it was a devastating blow. To realize that the birthdate scrawled across her forearm was from almost one hundred years in the past was to also realize that her soulmate had been dead long before she had ever been born. Her parents had to have known, had tried to put off her terrible discovery for as long as possible, and like a fool she had demanded that her own heart be broken.

Already teased enough for the size of her forehead, Sakura knew quite well what the reaction would be if anyone ever found out about the date on her arm. She vowed to herself that she would never show it to anyone, that she would find a way to always keep it covered, and that no one would ever know her secret shame.

 

iii.

Naruto got caught trying to break in to the records building a lot. It wasn’t really all that exceptional; trying to break in to the records room was so common that it was almost considered a rite of passage by most of the adults. What caught Sakura’s attention was that he just kept getting caught, which meant more than one thing: he was a lot more tenacious of a person that she’d expected and he didn’t know who his soulmate was yet.

Despite her annoyance that she had to be on a team with someone as loud and annoying as him, Sakura couldn’t help but feel a slight kinship with anyone still searching for answers about who their soulmate was. During her time at the academy it had been difficult to hide her mark when those around her had all shown theirs off so proudly. After he learned her birthday and confirmed that it didn’t match the date he carried on his own arm Naruto had never once bothered her about her soul mark; he was desperate for attention and he did like to stick his nose in to any business he could possibly make his own but Naruto wasn’t nosy about personal things. It was one of his more tolerable qualities.

When their new sensei was late to training for the fourteenth time in a row Sakura watched Naruto sneak off towards the records room and made a snap decision. Her teammate blinked owlishly at her when she flippantly declared that she would help him try to get in but quickly tried to play it off with an ostentatious declaration that he appreciated her helped even though he was sure he would have gotten in on his own this time.

She said nothing about her own motives for helping. The date on her arm was need-to-know information and Naruto did not need to know.

Both of them acted as though they weren’t surprised when the plan they worked out together actually got them inside the building. Naruto looked like he might faint from the shock, like he’d never actually believed he would make it this far, but he was quick to tell his new partner in crime that the plan had only worked because he was so awesome. Ignoring him, Sakura suggested they split up to see if they could figure out the filing system in here.

“Do you want to see my arm?” Naruto asked her. “So you know what I’m looking for, you know?”

“Oh…sure.”

Keeping her secrets to herself, Sakura gave her teammates arm a perfunctory glance before marching away to the other side of the massive room, her fingers delving in to layers of dust and her heart praying for at least a good chunk of time before anyone noticed they were in here.

You would think, she ruminated to herself as she tugged out folder after folder, that it wouldn’t be so hard to get at these records. Everyone in the world had a birthdate on their arm and she didn’t understand why this information wasn’t open to the public. What harm could it possibly do to help soulmate pairs find each other more easily? She didn’t particularly care since she would never meet her other half anyway but it was a thought that wriggled in and wouldn’t let go, occupying her mind while she explored.

Neither she nor Naruto spoke at all while they searched, keeping quiet so as not to attract any undue attention. Twenty minutes passed and Sakura had started grabbing files at random when a loud whoop almost made her jump right out of her own skin.

Incredulous, she stuck her head out of the aisle she was in to look several shelves down at where Naruto was doing a rather noisy victory dance.

“What is wrong with you?” she hissed. He was completely unconcerned, turning towards her with his typical brilliant smile and a thick folder held between both hands.

“I found them, Sakura-chan! Found them!”

“Great,” she said quietly. “Now shut up!”

With the racket he was making they wouldn’t have much longer. Sakura grabbed the drawer of the closest filing cabinet and yanked it open, coughing her way through a cloud of dust. Her fingers chose something at random to pull out and she was nearly floored to realize that, while the date certainly wasn’t a match, the year was close to the one she had been branded with.

“Oi! What are you doing in here, kid?”

Sakura’s head whipped to the side as she listened to Naruto sass off to the guard he had stupidly alerted. Then she jerked her attention back to the cabinet in front of her, both hands moving in a mad rush. Naruto wasn’t smart enough to lie when they asked if he was alone so there wasn’t much time left; but she was just so close! Keeping one ear cocked towards the other side of the room, Sakura dragged out file after file, not even bothering to put them back in their proper places anymore. Some of them bore names from impossibly old clans like the Senju and the Kurama clans, neither of whom had any living descendants in Konoha.

Footsteps were coming in her direction when she pulled out one last file and her eyes were still glued to the fading ink when a spiky head popped around the edge of the aisle she had somewhat destroyed.

“Here she is,” a familiar voice said. “Found her, Izumo!”

“Well then let’s get them out of here before Sandaime-sama finds out we let the little twerps get in.”

Kotetsu laughed casually and dropped a hand on to Sakura’s shoulder. When she didn’t respond he very gently tugged the folder she was holding out of her frozen fingers, setting it aside. Sakura blinked at the empty air without seeing anything. The hand on her shoulder guided her forward and she followed along with no protest, walking on numb legs, barely registering when she reached a bouncing, excited Naruto.

The two men led them out of the building and set them loose with a short lecture on staying out of places they weren’t supposed to be in. Immediately Naruto launched in to enthusiastic rambling about how he’d found someone with the exact birthdate embedded in his arm, how he was going to go find them, that surely they must be his soulmate and wasn’t that exciting? Sakura tried to respond but it came out as little more than a faint wheeze. Luckily Naruto didn’t need much more acknowledgement than that. He was up and gone and yelling thanks over his shoulder before even he seemed to realize that his feet were moving.

How she made it home, Sakura had no idea. She neither heard nor saw her worried parents on the way up to her room. Only once she had perched herself carefully on the very end of her bed did one single emotion break through the haze which had fallen over her all the way back in the records room.

Greif, she thought distantly. This was what it felt like to mourn, although it surprised her that she was able to feel so intensely about the situation. All things considered, she would have thought that finally discovering the name of her soulmate would barely make her feel anything. She’d known he was already dead, known for years now, so how was it possible that just learning his name had the power to stop her entire world from spinning? It felt like a shadowed hand were reaching forward through the decades to plunge inside her chest and grip her heart, squeezing unrelentingly.

Uchiha Madara, the betrayer of Konoha. How could someone like her be bound to a monster like that?

The tears found her only moments before her parents did but no matter how many questions they asked Sakura held her silence. It was ridiculous to think that they would see her any differently if they knew who her soulmate had been – they were her parents, they would always love her – but still she kept her secret. This was her shadow to bear.

 

iv.

“So you found them?”

“No.” Slouching down and pulling up tufts of grass, Naruto scowled. “Well, yeah and no. She didn’t have my birthday on her arm.”

“Well tons of people probably share the same birthday. It’s not really a big surprise that you didn’t get them on the first try. Maybe they live in another village.”

Naruto sighed despondently and craned his neck to see if their sensei had arrived yet.

Beside him, Sakura tugged at her elbow protectors to make sure they were still in place, covering just far enough down her arm that no one else would ever see the writing on her skin. Uchiha Madara had died in darkness and he deserved to stay there, in her opinion.

She hoped he was scowling in his grave.

 

v.

Fifteen years old seemed like a great age to have her first boyfriend. It had at the time, anyway. Gorou was the fifth son of a wealthy merchant, a civilian with basic shinobi training to protect him on the road between villages, just enough to give him a healthy admiration for the village’s militant guardians. He was smart and independent and he was enraptured by the muscle tone which had developed in her arms ever since she had come under the tutelage of the Godaime Hokage. Sakura liked him.

But that was all.

The fourth date was drawing to a close and still her heart had yet to flutter in anticipation even once. Sakura choked down a sigh as she listened to Gorou tell her about how amazing his trip to Waterfall Country had been the year before. It was an interesting story with fascinating anecdotes and really funny jokes and Sakura ignored the whole thing in favor of trying to convince herself that she wanted to kiss him. Was she trying too hard? Emotions were finicky things, after all, and she was definitely the sort of person to dig in their heels when someone tried to tell her to do something, even if that someone was herself.

It was the same old story. Sakura had found plenty of guys cute over the years since puberty had violently smacked her in the face. Admiring a nice body never seemed too much trouble yet building a real emotional connection was always where trouble reared its stupid head. Was she broken? Was she some kind of sociopath, unable to feel love?

No, that was stupid. There were plenty of people that she felt a very deep love for. Her problem was that all of those loves were platonic, friendships and family, and Sakura’s young heart longed for romance. She wanted so desperately to be swept up in someone’s arms and declared the love of their life, no matter what numbers were written on their arms. She wanted someone to see her as something more than a preordained empty fate.

Because it wasn’t fair that her fate had ended before it ever began.

After eating dinner at a sweet little café that she’d never been to before – but would definitely be coming back to later – Gorou walked her home, strangely silent. He’d filled the rest of the evening with pleasant and interesting chatter; now that the date had reached its end it was as though he had simply run dry of words. Not that Sakura could blame him. It probably wasn’t very encouraging to talk so much with so little reaction from his companion.

“So this was…something,” he said as they reached her front door. Sakura groaned in mortification.

“I am so sorry,” she whispered. “You’re amazing, Gorou, really. It’s just–”

“Just not for you. That’s okay. My parents told me last night that we’re leaving for the Land of Tea anyway.” Gorou shrugged. “At least I’m not leaving any broken hearts behind, right?”

Sakura smiled a little, grateful that she wasn’t sending him off with a broken heart either.

Fifteen years old had seemed like a great age for a first boyfriend but it looked like she still had a bit of growing to do before she could start thinking about epic romances. Maybe her mother was right and she should find someone to talk to about how her situation made her feel. Someone professional. She wasn’t sure that she was fully comfortable with the idea of it yet but she was slowly coming around to it.

One thing she did know was that she did not want to follow in the footsteps of her two greatest role models. Kakashi and Tsunade were both amazing people but they had both let the phenomenon of soulmates ruin their happiness, Tsunade by the loss of hers and Kakashi by never finding his.

If Sakura had to beat her own heart in to submission she would find someone to love, someone who would love her back even if they both had to bind their arms and never think of numbers again.

 

vi.

War was a terrible place.

Sakura thought longingly of the innocence she had clung to only a year before, knowing she would never un-see the horrors and atrocities which had taken place right before her eyes since then. For the rest of her life she would remember the screams of the medics’ encampment, the helplessness as another life faded under his fingers, and the dark consuming lack of hope she could see in the eyes of those who waited for her time.

War was indeed the most terrible place to lose the final vestiges of her childhood but Sakura could not think of a single place she would rather be. Here she could help, even if that help was to keep only a small handful of lights from winking out. Any life saved was worth it.

Those were the thoughts Sakura clung to as she felt her sanity tremble and fray, while she watched the reanimated form of her own soulmate wreak havoc upon the collective forces of the Elemental Nations. Madara was as dark as the legends had built him up to be. His gaze was restless and his words insane, his resolve unwavering even as he stood alone in the face of armies. Some distant, shriveled piece of her heart cried out at seeing him and, even as she understood why, she did her best to silence that voice inside her.

Why should she care about the ages-old pain only too visible in his eyes? What should she care about his reasons? He was a killer, would never be more and had never been less.

She shouldn’t have been there when he was revived. Sakura couldn’t have even said how she made her way from fighting that giant wooden statue to the barren field where Naruto and Sai were attempting to seal Madara. Her memories were hazy and her body strangely drawn, as though she had been pulled here like a magnet, some bell in the back of her consciousness chiming out and begging her to follow. Without knowing why, she did.

Just as she watched Sai’s tiger bite down on Madara’s arm in preparation for sealing him, a massive wave of chakra seemed to emanate from him and boiled the ink creation. The heavenly gates keeping him in place splintered outwards and when their enemy rose he was no longer a reanimated corpse.

Uchiha Madara had been reborn.

The three teammates watched in horror as Madara stood and raised both arms in front of him, a manic grin already spilling across his face. And then he paused, his eyes widening, until a moment later they were confused to see their own horror mirrored in that wild expression.

“Impossible,” he growled, pawing at the skin of his own arm. “Impossible.”

“What’s he doing?” Naruto hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

Neither of his two friends answered him but Sakura had the strangest notion that she knew. He was scratching at the exact same spot where her own soul mark rested; could that have had something to do with his sudden distress?

“Something has happened. This is wrong. Impossible, wrong, wrong! What did that fool do!?” Madara snarled and clawed and pulled at the naked skin of his forearm, his feet stumbling as though the sheer weight of his own mania were throwing him off balance. As he shifted he turned at just the right angle for them to catch a glimpse of the writing which was now framed in the red marks scored by his own nails. “Illusion! Why will it not come off!?”

“Doesn’t matter, I guess,” Naruto said. “Whatever ghosts this guy is seeing aren’t important; we’re still gonna kick his ass, ‘ttebayo!”

“Back off before I exterminate you and all your friends, you insignificant worm! This is important. What have you done that can fool even the Sharingan!?” As he snarled at them Madara rotated his arm to again display the golden numbers written there, causing Sakura to cringe.

Since it was all old news to her, she felt her time was better spent watching the madman in front of her for any signs that he might attack them but her friends, apparently, had attention to spare for certain other details.

“Hey, isn’t that your birthday, Sakura?” Her entire body stiffened when Sai spoke up, a curious lilt in his typically flat voice.

Madara’s gaze found her immediately and it was impossible to tell if he was angry, confused, or terrified. Her bets were mostly on angry once he started grinding his teeth together and leapt towards her with murderous purpose on his face.

 

vii.

Having two international criminals in the basement was enough trouble without all the other villages calling for their blood. Owning up to the fact that the most dangerous and unstable villains always seemed to come from Konoha only added to the whole kerfuffle.

Despite her own reservations about the whole situation, Sakura couldn’t deny the joy in Kakashi-sensei’s eyes just at the chance to spend time with his old friend, the one whose death had set him on the path which made him who he was today. Obito himself wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows about everything either but it was nice to know that at least one person was getting a little happiness out of this mess.

Madara was obviously not.

After his distraction led to a rousing defeat of both him and the enslaved Obito, Madara spent most of his days raging at whoever stepped close enough to listen. Just remembering the fact that ‘mere mortals’ had been able to best him was enough to have him ranting at the top of his lungs and yet that wasn’t even the source of his greatest upset. The numbers on his arm had turned out to have a greater significance than anyone would have thought.

Evidently he had never possessed a soul mark during his life, believing to his dying day that there was no one in the world for his soul to connect to. It was part of what had driven him so mad and one of the main reasons he had so easily cut ties to everyone he had once cared for; waiting year after year for a mark that never came, his obsession and paranoia growing deeper and deeper over time, had led him to some very strange conclusions. Once his brother passed away he had slowly convinced himself that anyone who claimed to love him was lying, that he was simply incapable of being loved.

Sakura very carefully managed not to think about how much she might be exacerbating that stupid idea by refusing to speak to him in the jail cell he had been sealed within. Or, at least, she managed not to think about it for close to a year after she and her friends stumbled home from war.

The thing was: knowing that your soulmate died long before you were born only to suddenly find them very much alive again was a bit of a strange thing to wrap your head around. Mostly she tried not to think about it because whenever she did she wasn’t sure which thread to follow or how she felt about it when the thoughts crept up on her. How did one come to terms with the fact that one’s soulmate is a megalomaniac and a mass murderer to boot? As a shinobi she had taken her fair share of lives but it seemed the Uchiha clan was chock full of idiots willing to take those numbers to the extreme.

Yet here she was almost a year later skulking in the shadows as though she were the one who had something to hide away. Madara might as well have been in isolation for all the human contact he was allowed. Other than the psychiatrist he was forced to speak to twice a week, there were very few other times when he was given to chance to interact with anyone else; even his own guards preferred to melt in to the shadow as though they weren’t there.

Probably they wished they weren’t.

His cell was on a basement level by itself, away from the other prisoners and especially away from Obito, who flew in to a frothing rage at the mere sight of his one-time captor. Even the other prisoners either scorned or feared him and it had caused enough unrest that their new Hokage chose to move him somewhere where he wouldn’t bother anyone.

Watching from the shadows, Sakura could see that all this time alone was doing Madara no favors. It occurred to her that he had probably gotten enough of that from the time he had spent in the cave where he lived before capturing Obito. She observed him silently as he prowled around the edges of his prison cell, wild black locks floating like a cloud of angry snarls behind him. It looked as though he hadn’t brushed his hair since being reanimated – and smelled as though he hadn’t taken a bath either. Despite understanding their motivations, Sakura had just enough of a moral compass left to be disappointed in her fellow shinobi for so badly neglecting someone placed in their care.

Madara paced for a long time and it looked as though he were doing it more out of boredom than any sort of explosive anger. Lower security prisoners were allowed out in to an exercise yard every day but someone like him had to be kept behind layers upon layers of chakra suppressing seals. Sakura wondered if he was even allowed to visit the psychiatrist or if whoever it was came down here to see him.

“I know you’re there,” his voice filled the room suddenly, his pace unchanging. Sakura very nearly lost her grip on the stones keeping her stuck to the ceiling. “You smell of freshness and open air, so unlike this dismal hell. Have you come to exact revenge, stranger? I’m sure they would let you.”

Fingers tightening, Sakura swallowed thickly. The way he spoke was so calm, so blasé, and she wondered if he truly didn’t care that someone might have come to kill him. Sure, this wasn’t exactly a great life in here but – no, actually, she could very much see how living in these conditions would cause a man to lose his will to live. All things considered, he was probably handling this a lot better than most people would.

“Come out, come out, stranger. If you’ve come to kill me then be done with it. I abhor dawdling.”

Around and around his little cell he continued to wander at an even pace, all of his muscles completely relaxed. Sakura hesitated a moment longer before sliding back down to the floor and slowly making her way out of the shadows.

The moment he spotted her Madara’s entire body coiled like a sprung trap and his lips peeled back in an angry hiss. Her hackles shot up in response and suddenly they were glowering at each other through the barred wall. Sakura clenched her fists and tried not to think about the mark on her arm.

“You,” Madara growled. “What are you doing here?”

“That’s my own business,” she shot back.

“Leave, you insolent pretender, unless you have come to end my misery and free me from this world of ridiculous lies.” He had stopped pacing and now stood as still as a statue but for his eyes which tracked every minute twitch on his visitor’s body.

Sakura rolled her own eyes. “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. You aren’t the one who’s had to live their whole life knowing their soulmate was a betrayer!”

“I betrayed nothing. It was them who betrayed me first. I opened my eyes to the lies around me and saw that I would have to be the one to bring truth to this world. Now you and your ilk keep me from setting you all free, like children refusing what is good for you.”

“What lies, idiot?” Propping both fists on her hips, Sakura lifting one eyebrow judgingly. “I’m not exactly happy to have you as a soulmate but at least I–”

“NO.”

She just barely resisted jumping in surprise when he slammed forward against the bars, eyes wild and boring in to her as though the heat of his anger could melt the iron barrier between them.

“I will not hear of it,” he snarled.

“Hear of what?” A moment passed before Sakura realized what had upset him so and instantly she felt her own anger rising to meet with his. “Oh would you just grow the fuck up? Really? You’re upset that I said we’re soulmates? Well newsflash, asshole, this wasn’t good news for me either but it looks like I’m handling things a lot better than you!”

“We are not! I have no soulmate. You are nothing, no one, not mine!”

“Go fuck yourself.” Sakura squared her feet and leaned forward until they were breathing in each other’s faces between the bars. “You don’t get to pretend that this wasn’t hard on anyone but you. Do you think it was easy knowing that my own soulmate died decades before I was ever born? Huh? You think it was fun hiding my numbers so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the pity? Being blank would have been a mercy, you stuck up maniac!”

Madara snarled in her face menacingly but she did not back down. They were so close together that a single tilt of her chin would brush her skin against his and she could barely separate the conflicting urges to lean in or lean away.

“If your arm was blank then at least you had hope for a time. I never had hope. All my life I’ve known that you were gone long before I arrived and that I had missed my chance. Never even had one. That isn’t to say that your situation wasn’t shitty but don’t you look at me and think I didn’t mourn for something I never had a chance to know.”

“Would it have been better to know that you would never be loved?” he asked her in a mocking tone.

“It would have been better if I’d had a real soulmate instead of you,” she shot back.

Amazingly, those were the words which caused him to recoil, shock written plainly across his face as though she had slapped him. Madara stumbled back on unsteady knees until he had retreated halfway across his cell. There he stopped with his gaping jaw working soundlessly, hands clenching and unclenching in arrhythmic patterns.

It took some time before he was able to regain himself; Sakura used that pause to compose herself as well. Losing her temper had always been a bit too easy and she hated that she had exposed her weakness like that so easily, especially to someone like him. She should have nothing but hatred for this man so why was it that she felt so drawn to him? Something in her knew that the moment she left she would feel the need to come back – but for what?

“Why did I even come here in the first place?” Sakura wondered out loud, spinning on her heel and marching determinedly back down the hallway.

Before she was halfway to the stairs she heard the pounding of fists against metal and Madara’s haughty voice demanding that she come back. Bearing in mind his less than enthusiastic welcome, she felt no remorse in ignoring him now. He obviously didn’t want her and the feeling was very much mutual. There was nothing here for her.

Two weeks later found her back in that dark hallway, perplexed as to why she had bothered to come.

 

viii.

It probably wasn’t obvious to anyone but her or the silent guards who regularly watched over their conversations from the shadows, but therapy was actually doing Madara some good.

Actually, sometimes it wasn’t that easy for her to tell either considering how jilted and awkward their conversations tended to be. Despite the sessions with his psychiatrist doing him well, therapy wasn’t an immediate fix and a bit of backsliding wasn’t entirely unexpected. There were still days when Sakura would find him with his arm covered in scratch marks from where he had tried to claw the numbers out of his own flesh to prove them false.

On the days when he was feeling well he was…interesting. After a few months Sakura gave up on hating herself for her need to keep coming back and decided it wasn’t worth the introspection to figure out why. All that mattered to her was the thrill running down her spine on the rare occasion she was able to make Madara smile, the rapt attention on his face as he listened to her tell stories of the current world, the palpitations in her chest the one time he had allowed her to reach through the door of his cell and touch his wrist. She’d only been brushing off the lingering crumbs of his dinner and his eyes had followed her movements as though expecting an attack but, still, he hadn’t pulled away nor had he asked her to stop and Sakura could perfectly recall the texture of his skin underneath hers, the steady beat of his pulse.

For whatever reason, the rhythm of those few beats of his pulse were on her mind today, her feet unconsciously following the same pattern in their journey down a familiar dark hallway. Several shadows shortened and fell back in respect for her presence as she approached the only prisoner kept on this floor.

“Ere she comes,” Madara’s voice drifted out teasingly from the far corner of his cell.

“Are you trembling in your boots?” Sakura asked him, feeling her lips twitch. He lifted one eyebrow and flexed the bare toes of both feet.

“Surely I would, Lass, but I don’t appear to be wearing any.”

Reluctantly, hiding it behind the rolling of her eyes, Sakura smiled. Who knew that a titan such as Uchiha Madara would be prone to telling bad jokes when he was relaxed enough to do so? She very carefully refrained from bringing any attention to the joke itself, however, in case he took offense to what exactly caught her interest about it.

It had been more than two years since she first began her visits to this dark and dismal hallway and that one joke was all the proof she could ever hope for of just how much he had changed since then. The Madara who had first been imprisoned here would never imply himself to be scared of anyone, not even in jest. Sakura could almost say she was honored that he had played along.

He had grown – healed – in other ways as well in that time, however.

“And how does my wayward soulmate fare on this weathered day?”

“Weathered?”

“I cannot see the weather but I’m more than certain it’s still there in one form or another. Rain or sun, however, is beyond my telling.”

“You know, you’re not half as funny as you think you are.”

“Hn. Then why are you still smiling?”

Since she didn’t really have a rebuttal for that, Sakura said nothing. Instead she flopped backwards on to the bench she had dragged down here a long time ago and curled one ankle behind the other. It was still a bit of a thrill to hear him refer to her as his soulmate without screaming a denial in the same sentence. Her heart fluttered inside her chest still, stealing her concentration and making her forget whatever stupid inconsequential story she had meant to tell him today.

“For your information it snowed last night,” she said, allowing herself time to gather her scattered thoughts.

“Snow.” Madara’s gaze slid away from her and his expression grew distant. “I no longer recall what it feels like to stand in the snow. Logic tells me that it would be cold, of course, but the details escape me.”

“Maybe if you’re good I’ll bring you a snowball to play with.”

His eyes returned to hers and gave her such an unimpressed look that she was forced to bite her lip just to keep herself from bursting in to laughter. No matter how many bad jokes he liked to tell, Madara wasn’t exactly the whimsical type who would appreciate such a silly gift as a snowball.

“You’d be just as likely to throw it at my head,” he said. “I believe I shall pass on that offer. Perhaps someday I shall be freed from this rotting hole and relive the experience for myself.” That he managed to speak of the future with only minimal bitterness in his voice gave Sakura a burst of warmth in her chest, one which she refused to acknowledge as affection. Having any sort of affection for someone who most certainly viewed her as little more than his only source of entertainment was far from a good idea.

“Kakashi-sensei has agreed to revisit your case for the possibility of parole,” she told him quietly. Madara sat up quickly, his expression suddenly intense, hyper focused.

“Tell me.”

“Nothing’s been decided for certain. There’s a lot of people in the village – in all of the village’s – who would prefer to keep you locked up for the rest of your life, so it’s been difficult to argue your case in the face of so much push back. If Naruto weren’t the forgiving idiot he was then I doubt anyone would even stop to consider the idea. And if he didn’t have Gaara in his back pocket.”

“Remind me to send them both a gift basket,” Madara said dryly.

Sakura narrowed her eyes at him playfully before heaving a sigh and continuing. “There would be conditions, of course. Probably community service of some sort and I can’t say it’s likely they would ever allow you to access your chakra again. Actually, there are some people calling for you to be severed from your chakra permanently, which others argue would be likely to drive you mad. The arguments go back and forth and, honestly, I come out with a headache every time.”

“This has been going on for some time, then.”

“Ah.” Raising her head, she offering him a sheepish look. “I didn’t want to say anything unless it looked like at least a small possibility. To offer you such a hope only have it taken away…it seemed cruel.”

“I could describe you in many ways but ‘cruel’ is not one of them,” he agreed. Warmth filled her again and she ruthlessly shoved the feeling down.

There was no need for her to tell him that she was one of the few people advocating for his release; in part because she refused to admit to it out loud and in part because he already knew even though she’d neglected that particular detail. Despite her efforts to remain as aloof as possible it was painfully obvious that she had gotten attached to him in one way or another. All she could hope was that he wouldn’t realize just how deeply that attachment had taken root and to what lengths she would go for a man who, for most of her life, had existed as little more than a nightmare.

It was true though. No matter how long it took, so long as there was someone willing to listen to her arguments, she would continue to work towards Madara’s release. The rest of the world be damned, she was determined to see the day when she could have just one conversation with her own soulmate unseparated by bars of sealed iron.

 

ix.

No one was truly able to tell for certain what age Madara’s body was when he had been brought back to life. From what he had been able to remember, it seemed he was at least somewhere in his late twenties and at most close to his mid-thirties. By the time he was released from prison he could have been close to his late forties yet there wasn’t any way to know for sure.

Sakura wished she knew what age he was. It felt important, somehow, in this moment.

No words she could think of could have properly described his face as he stood in the snow, ankle deep and without proper coverings for his legs. She had offered to bring him a pair of boots for the journey but he had refused and it was easy to see why, not having made it more than a few steps past the dry interior of the Interrogation tower before he came to a halt and simply stood in perfect stillness.

His hair whipped around him like a cape, tugged by the breeze and ruining the painstaking efforts he had gone to with the brush she’d brought him, attempting to look presentable for his return to the world outside. Rather than seem annoyed, he didn’t appear to even notice. His eyes appeared unable to decide what to stare at, the ground or the buildings or the sky or the fat white flakes falling in to his raised, open palms.

Sakura watched him in silence and waited patiently.

For nearly a decade she had waited to see him released from prison. A few more minutes wouldn’t kill her now.

 

x.

“Your friend disrespects the very position he is trying to obtain,” Madara noted lazily from his perch.

Sakura looked down and squinted, trying to pinpoint what her companion had been looking at. When she spotted it she didn’t bother to hide the giggle which bubbled up; there was no one up here but the two of them after all.

Dozens of feet below them Naruto could be seen bounding across the rooftops, only just barely keeping ahead of the two figures chasing after him. Kakashi probably didn’t think much of having his robes dyed a virulent green but Obito, after being released in to the merciful hands of his one-time teammate, had become strangely overprotective. It looked more like Kakashi was chasing Obito who was chasing Naruto, the obvious culprit in this situation.

From her perch atop the fourth Hokage’s great stone head, Sakura shook her own. Naruto might be a mere year or two away from realizing his lifelong dream but he had yet to grow out of his love for pranks.

“I don’t think ‘respect’ is in Naruto’s vocabulary. Not the same way it’s in yours, at least.”

“Your definition would not be likely to meet my own standards either,” Madara pointed out. Sakura only smiled cheekily, completely unrepentant. She’d been his warden for long enough at this point to feel comfortable poking fun at him every so often; the big bad wolf wasn’t so scary now that she was the one holding the leash.

“A lot of things I do probably don’t meet your standards,” she joked in return.

In her mind she was referring to the fact that he despised her cooking and griped constantly over how poor of a housekeeper she was. Cleaning wasn’t exactly one of her strongest skills, much to the chagrin of the one who was now legally required to live under her roof. Sakura was of the opinion that if she had room to move around then it was fine. Madara wanted things spotless. He ended up doing a lot more cleaning than he thought he should but he never allowed such travesties to pass without a long wordy lecture which she happily ignored every time.

When she heard neither conspiratorial laughter nor exasperated moaning, Sakura looked beside herself to check that her companion hadn’t fallen off the edge of the monument or something. She was surprised to find a pensive, almost hesitant expression on Madara’s face. Before she could ask if he was alright he opened his mouth, paused to frown, then opened it again to speak.

“There is much about you that…meets my standards, as it were.”

Sakura blinked, confused. “Uh, thanks? I think.” He looked frustrated at her response, as though she should have understood his meaning from such a vague sentence.

“Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is much about you which exceeds my expectations. You are nothing like I would have expected, nor even what I would have thought to wish for, yet I do not find myself disappointed.”

 “Well that’s, er, a good thing. Although I’m not sure what you mean by expectations. Look, if this is about me punching a hole in the yard last week–”

“No, this has nothing to do with you punching a hole in the yard last week.”

Madara pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers while Sakura cocked her head to one side, more confused than ever. He was obviously trying to communicate something to her but she had zero ideas about what it could be. No matter how many years had passed or how many sessions he continued to have with his therapist – one of the many conditions of his parole – communication still wasn’t his strong suit.

In an attempt to salvage the good mood he’d been in, one she had worked very hard to get him to after a long day of community service, she leaned over to bop their shoulders together casually.

“Well, whatever it is, I’m always happy to exceed anyone’s expectations. Not all of us can be super important from the moment we were born like you!” She grinned, but instead of taking the bait he turned his body to face her, his brows knitting together in a frown on determination.

“You are important,” he said.

“I’m head of the hospital, so, yeah I guess.”

“To me. You are important– We are– Humph.” Frown dissolving in to a full-blown scowl, he looked away for a moment and settled his gaze in the middle distance while he tried again. “I did not have a soulmate in my previous life. And now in this life you are here with me, willing to redeem me of my sins no matter that I did not want you to. At first. It is true that you are an important person to your village but what I meant was that you are important to me.”

“Oh.”

For a moment she very nearly forgot the mechanics of breathing and there was a very real fear that her heart might leap up in to her throat. After she’d convinced her lungs to draw oxygen once more she coughed and cast around for words that could express the feelings raging through her body.

Because she knew what he was trying to say now and just the thought of it had stolen the very earth from beneath her feet. She had dreamed about it of course, such intoxicating if impossible dreams, but to have it in reality had never seemed even remotely plausible, not with how strenuously he had fought against it from the start.

Eventually Madara looked away, his spine stiffening as he mistook her silence for rejection.

“If it should please you, I believe I shall return to my quarters now.”

“Home.”

He stiffened further. “What?”

“You could just say that you’re going home.”

“It is your home and I an interloper.”

“Why are you always so pessimistic?” she asked, neither expecting an answer nor waiting for one.

Not wanting to give the man a chance to run away, Sakura turned and raised herself up on to her knees all in one fluid motion. Madara grunted in surprise when she pressed her lips against his but he did not pull away and she counted that as a victory.

“I love you too,” she whispered against his lips, hoping she was right. Several heartbeats passed while she stared at the pale shade of his closed eyelids.

“That is…yes, well. Excellent. Expected. Unsurprising.” He had yet to open his eyes and Sakura was sure he wasn’t aware of the way his chin tilted up in search of her, unconsciously asking for another kiss. She was more than happy to indulge him.

And just because she could, because she had been holding the words in for too long now, she whispered once more, “I love you.”

Thin fingers wrapped around her arm, just beneath the elbow where they would rest against the warm golden numbers she had been born with, and Sakura kissed Madara as though all the lights in the world would go out if she did not.