When I was a little girl, my mother held me close—
Don’t be afraid, my flower
You are not alone.
Her whisper in the darkness, her warmth in my hair.
I am not alone.
I am not alone.
I-I am not alone—
It had been three days since Sakura had last seen the sun.
It was there, she knew. She saw it when she looked up through the bone-white canopy leaves each as long as a man grown. Their blue veins shone black under the harsh light above, silhouetted spiderwebs caging her in. She need only climb, of course. A bit of chakra to stick her steps, a kunai to hack her way through.
They were only leaves. Their tainted blood couldn’t hurt her. She was still here, sucking in air and frightfully aware. Not like the frogs that did not croak, nor the birds that did not sing. She was still here. And here she would remain.
Sakura pursed her lips and clung to that thought:
Here I will remain.
Time passed differently in the Shikkotsu Forest.
Funny how they say that about time passing, as if it were a stranger on the sidewalk shuffling past. Your eyes catch for a moment, a blink, and then he’s gone. But you might see him again sometime walking that same path, eyes searching, searching for—
Sakura could not afford a distraction. Time was preciously scant as it was, and she had the weight of souls upon her shoulders.
“You will train,” Tsunade had told her. “You will learn.”
“What will I learn?”
Tsunade did not have the answer to her question. Perhaps that was why she had sent Sakura here to this place. This dead place.
No, a place where even the dead did not dwell.
Her chakra helped. Her perfect control over it did the rest. It was no easy task metabolizing the poison she inhaled with every breath, but then, she had not come here thinking it would be easy. She had come here because she had nowhere else to go.
“You will learn,” Tsunade had promised, entreated, commanded.
So far, Sakura had learned how not to suffocate.
She rested her hand upon the porous, spongy trunk of a tree. Blue-black sap oozed from the pores in its alabaster bark. She had the sudden, delirious urge to taste that succor, coat her tongue until it was saccharine, and swallow. Coating her fingers, it was warm and soft, like chocolate.
She hastily wiped her poisoned fingers on the brittle, blanched grass that brushed her knees. She would need to learn faster if she hoped to conquer this place with her life intact.
Trees falling, collapsing all around her. On top of her. A scream, but this labyrinth devoured sound like a starving beast. Teeth, tongues, dripping their black and blue bile onto her, into her, after her.
Run, you idiot!
There is nothing more harrowing than running with nowhere to go but deeper.
Deeper into the forest where the dead don’t go, Sakura ran, plunged, plummeted—
Massive, it had to be. Nothing short of eldritch could make a sound like that. Branches slapped and scraped, greedy for a piece of her. But they did not follow into the water, rushing and gushing. The sun she could not see could not see her, either. She tumbled down the cataract just as something tumbled after her and—
She was magnificent, the new Hokage Naruto and Jiraya had brought back.
Magnificent!! Sakura remembered thinking as Tsunade emerged in her Hokage regalia like a queen, or an empress, or a goddess.
Sakura had never seen anything like it when Tsunade raised a mangled cat from beyond the veil. The child wept with relief, and Sakura wept with joy.
Because this was it. This was what she had been searching for. There was no force on Earth stronger than death, except the power of those who had learned how to master it. Master death, and she might master life, too.
To a thirteen-year-old girl, that is the most precious of dreams.
“You will learn,” Tsunade said simply when Sakura failed time and again at the basics of medical ninjutsu.
“How? I’m trying!”
But Tsunade was as unmoved by failure as she was by death. And like death, she was patient.
And Sakura tried again. She never stopped trying, and that—that is why Tsunade apprenticed her above all the others who had come asking.
When Sakura tried something, she did not give up until she fucking mastered it.
You’re one hell of a girl…
But I wonder—
How long can you last like this?
Sakura woke to the echo of a very old nightmare. Its voice was rose petal soft along the shell of her ear, scraping teeth, whispering lips. She jerked, disoriented and dazed, her head pounding. It bled where she’d hit it on a rock drifting in the river. The cataract was nowhere to be seen—she must have drifted quite a ways.
The riverbank was white stone and purple moss, the water cool and clear. It was dark, darker than before. She tasted the damp, heavy air with every shallow breath, and the sharp tang of her own blood. Right, that. Best heal it up before it became infected.
Sakura drew upon her trusty chakra, pooled her life in her hands. Fingers dripping neon threaded through her wet, pink hair, kneading and healing. For a few precious minutes, she found herself in the familiar and the mundane.
I’m Sakura Haruno, apprentice to the Fifth Hokage.
We’re going to war, and I’m not ready.
That’s why I’m here.
That’s why I’m here…
She opened her eyes, the only green thing in the whole of the Shikkotsu Forest, and she saw.
Here was a forest, and yet not. A world without the world, it was an old place forgotten at the horizon between fear and fable. Instead of sunlight, white. Instead of creature eyes, floating lights. No blooms, no birdsong, nobody. Only Sakura and the Ancient Ones who claimed this place as Theirs.
She reached for one of the floating golden lights, tiny as a firefly and far more delicate. She shuddered when it kissed her fingertips and dissipated, leaving only a chill behind. Sakura did not know why or when she had begun to weep. She clutched her cold fingers close and mourned the loss of something that had never been there at all, never would be missed.
She stood. Her training and her rational mind compelled her to seek shelter and safety. But since she’d set foot in this place, she had found no peace, no respite. Hell had no sanctuary, or else it would not be hell.
She walked. Slowly at first, each step measured and light, quiet. Quiet…
A chill kissed her neck. More of the falling, floating lights descended around her. Curious, them. Sakura had never seen such an over saturation of natural energy gathered in one place. The mega flora, the supercharged air as thick as ozone, and all the ambient energy that was still too much to contain. Scientifically speaking, it was the true cause for the Shikkotsu Forest’s bizarre liminal state caught between life and death. Not spirits or fay magic, but teeming Senjutsu left unchecked.
Poetically speaking, she was a girl lost in a wood older than time, and that story had a very familiar ending.
The story called to her now as the floating lights seemed to drift almost uniformly deeper into the forest. Sakura brushed her bangs out of her eyes, hesitating. Really…what did she have to lose at this point?
The path of light wended between trees as thick around as houses, and progress was slow-going. She heard nothing but the sound of her own progress, but every once in a while she cast a look back over her shoulder, wondering at the crawling sensation of eyes on her back and wishing she didn’t.
Hours she walked, maybe. Maybe it was only minutes. Maybe she was drowning at the bottom of the river and all this was a dream played out by her fast-dying brain cells trying to convince her she wasn’t already dead. Paranoid, Sakura walked faster.
She couldn’t say when the doubt crept in. Perhaps it was always there lying in wait.
I haven’t eaten anything in days.
That last one sent her heart pounding furiously until she thought she was suffocating. Gagging, she braced herself against a tree and heaved. No matter where she looked or how far she stretched her senses, there was nothing there. No sign of life at all. And yet, she could feel something here. Something… Something that had so far tolerated her presence, content merely to watch, to wait.
The floating lights clustered around a corner, ever silent and slow. Sakura steeled herself.
She barely made it a few steps before she tripped and fell. Her stomach clenched with a hunger pang so severe she thought she might never stand again. Medical chakra helped, but it was not the nourishment her body needed. There was nothing here but venom. One taste and she would die for sure.
A minute she lingered there, two, three. It was getting dark.
“Get up, Sakura.”
Knees wobbling, she forced herself up once more. Pain she could deal with. Pain was life. She was still alive.
Slowly, surely, she moved. The lights dumped out into a clearing in the forest where the river divided in a manner too perfect to be natural. The island that bisected it was home to white stone ruins overtaken by white ivy. Strange, black fruit hung from the low branches of trees a more familiar size, and long purple gourds bulged from vines in what may once have been a carefully tended vegetable patch, now overgrown and wild. The lights gathered around and among the abandoned settlement as though drawn to it. Sakura could hardly believe her eyes.
Revitalized, she stumbled toward it through the water. It was empty, of course. No one had been here in years, maybe even centuries. The roof had once been thatched, but it had rotted away in time and left the rooms exposed. They were basic but achingly human—a rudimentary kitchen, a bed filled with rotten leaves, even a privy that emptied into the stream. And the walls…
Sakura traced her fingers over an ancient rune carved directly into the alabaster stone, one of hundreds. They were a language she did not speak, but with which she had been familiar since her days as an Academy student.
“Fuinjutsu,” she marveled. “So many…”
One she recognized easily, and her fingers lingered on it. The purification seal was the largest and most prominent of all the runes. Heart racing with an idea, she dared to hope as she made her way back outside to the fruit and vegetable garden. She plucked one of the plump, black fruits from the tree and brought it to her mouth, but hesitated.
What am I doing?
If it was poisoned and she ate it, she would die. But if she did not eat, she would die anyway. In retrospect, she may have asked Tsunade about what in the hell she was supposed to eat in a forest where literally everything was poisonous. Next time.
Sakura laughed at the absurd thought, and then immediately shut her mouth.
Dread pooled in her gut at what she was about to do.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and bit into the fruit.
Her eyes flew open and she stared at the white meat of an apple. The tart fruit was exactly as any other she’d had in her life, and it went down sweet. She almost didn’t believe her luck, but when she took another bite, it tasted even better. She devoured it in a matter of seconds and still hungry, she reached for one of the blighted gourds next. It, too, was nothing but an ordinary vegetable.
That night, Sakura feasted for the first time in days. She drank from the stream, and never had she tasted such crisp, sweet water. The bed she filled with fresh, fleshy leaves and purple moss. With a full belly and a soft place to lay her weary head, she fell asleep among the pretty little lights, and she dreamed.
Once, I made a wish upon the Sun to bring me the Moon.
I missed him, you see.
I missed him so much…
Not that. Anything but that.
“It’s a promise of a lifetime!”
No no no no no—
Creaking, broken, wet.
His swords cut her deep.
But his words cut deeper still.
Why me? Why you?
Why is that the only way you can see the world?
Why must you ask such pointless questions?
Sakura woke unable to breathe. She bolted upright in her bed, one hand around her throat and the other clutching a kunai. Tears stung her eyes as she gagged for breath and looked around. Fear made her quake. Her fingers were slick and clammy around the kunai.
There was no one there.
Of course there was no one there.
She took the kunai with her as she slowly slipped out of bed.
A search of the ruins turned up nothing and no one. Outside, the sunlight cast its spiderweb glow through the veiny, blanched canopy. Ambient lights floated aimlessly. The vegetable garden was as she’d left it. Slowly, she lowered her kunai.
Get a grip, girl.
It was only a dream.
It was only ever a dream when she thought of him. But he was as dead as this poisoned place, years ago. It had been ages since she’d entertained his nightmare. These days, there were so many others to choose from.
She resolved not to think about him as she started her day, her first proper day. She resolved not to think of anyone or anything other than her purpose in coming here. Time was of the essence, and she could not afford to waste even a moment of it.
That thought consumed her as she ran through her standard warm up. How much time did she really have, anyway? War did not just happen one day out of nowhere. It was not one explosive clash between good and evil, settled in a day with a clear winner and loser. No, war was an insidious beast, as subtle as cancer, in it for the long game. It picked off the weak from the shadows and slowly carved a path deeper, until there was no escaping. Nobody won in a war, and everyone lost something. Someone. Many already had.
The floating lights settled around her while she meditated. In its way, it was peaceful here. The stillness, the quiet, even the distant groan of the Ancient Ones who lingered here. Sakura had not yet seen Them, and she hoped she never would.
She breathed deeply, and the tufts of light shuddered. In her mind’s eye, she imagined her chakra pouring out. Rivers and ribbons of white reached up and out, catching little lights in their web and drawing them in, into her. Their chill sank through her pores and raced through her veins. A sweet poison, electrifying as it lifted her mind and soul. She had an urge to open her eyes, but found it impossible. Something…something was here—there, in the gloom, far away, but she couldn’t, she can’t…
I need more.
Sakura opened her mouth and tasted the acrid air on her tongue, chilly and damp. It filled her lungs, and she found that funny. Do the dead breathe?
A little more.
She could feel it pulling at her now, this flood in her fingertips, her lips, her lungs. It poured over her, through her, rising up and up like drowning, but each bitter breath only brought her higher. If only she could see! But she wasn’t strong enough. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t enough.
“You will learn,” Tsunade promised her.
Sakura felt that vow like a brand upon her skin. Her forehead burned as the flood submerged her completely, and she gasped.
It was too much.
She opened her eyes, and the floodgates opened with them. The floating lights swirled furiously, buffeted by her chakra following a course all its own. It poured out of her, out of the Yin seal on her brow, everything she had nurtured for three years, awakened and open and free. She wanted to cry, to laugh, to marvel. This place, this power—
Sakura screamed as a crippling pain invaded her. It was under her fingernails, deep in her scar tissue, thunderous. She keeled over and clutched her forehead, the Yin seal pounding as though a stake were being hammered through it. Some of her chakra returned to her, all but ripping her apart as it reabsorbed with an almost human violence.
Shaking and suffering, Sakura could only watch helplessly as the rest torpedoed faster and faster, melding with the floating lights in a bright cyclone. Terrified of whatever strange reaction she had carelessly triggered, she tried to scramble away before whatever it was expelled her the way it had her chakra, but she was too late.
And nothing happened.
No explosion, no burst, no violence at all. From within the curtain of solid, slippery, frozen light, a hand emerged. It dripped molten light, and it was followed by an arm and a shoulder. Sakura was paralyzed where she lay, her body aching, and watched as the memory of a man took his first step out of the bright into this strange, mad world.
“Finally,” he said. “You of all people know how I hate waiting.”
He was as beautiful as he had always been, a corpse made perfect to soothe a broken heart. And Sakura’s heart surely broke to see him here. An old fear she had never been able to outrun filled the cracks in between as his honeyed gaze met hers for the first time in three years, and she shuddered.
“But I could train right here,” Sakura protested. “I’m more useful to you here in Konoha. There’s no reason to send me away.”
Tsunade, however, had made up her mind. “There’s a perfectly good reason: because I said so.”
“I don’t understand. I’m your only— I-I mean, with Shizune gone, I…”
Tsunade frosted over, and Sakura knew she had said too much. Shame weighed her gaze. She wished she could take it back, take it all back.
Shizune, Kakashi, all of them…
“I just meant… Have I done something to disappoint you?”
Tsunade leaned back in her chair and sighed. “You haven’t disappointed me. If anything, it may be the other way around.”
Sakura sputtered. “O-Of course not! You could never! Training with you has been my proudest accomplishment.”
“Yes, well, that’s just the problem. There’s nothing else I have to teach you.”
“But you’re a Sannin! You’re the strongest shinobi in the whole village, and I—”
“And you are well on your way to surpassing me, if only you would let yourself.”
Tsunade’s eyes glistened with emotion. Sakura stared in disbelief. “That’s…”
Tsunade smirked and laid her hand over Sakura’s across the desk in between them. “It’s the truth. Shizune’s death… It had nothing to do with this. I’m so proud of you, Sakura. I always have been.”
Sakura had begun to cry without even realizing it. Embarrassed, she hastily wiped her eyes, but Tsunade gave her a moment to gather herself.
“I’m sorry,” Sakura said.
“No need. I’m serious about your training. The Shikkotsu Forest is the ideal place for you to go.”
Sakura knew very little about the sacred forest. Few humans had ever dared tread there because it was said that the very air was toxic. It was also the home of the Ancient Ones, a race of slug and snail sages like Tsunade’s king summon, Katsuyu.
“But even you never trained there. How could I possibly?”
“The difference between you and me is simply a matter of years. I’ve had many more to hone my skills. That will come for you in time. There’s no shortcut. But there is other knowledge out there. I never had the time at your age, and after the war when I did…” Tsunade trailed off and her gaze darkened. “I was too consumed by grief, but you still have time. This war that’s coming… It will cost you in ways you cannot imagine.”
Sakura knew there was nothing she could say to that, and yet her heart ached for Tsunade all the same. Dan, Nawaki, the Third Hokage, Jiraiya, and Shizune most recently—she had lost so many already.
“It feels wrong to leave,” Sakura said truthfully. “When Naruto left to train on Mt. Myoboku…”
“That was different,” Tsunade said sternly. “You are not a Jinchuuriki. You’re not a target. But you could be so much more than you are, if you wanted it.”
If she wanted it.
“Death in full bloom,” Tsunade said. “That was how she described the poisonous Shikkotsu Forest.”
“Mito Uzumaki, my grandmother. She was the last person to have trained there.”
Sakura thought that sounded creepy as hell, but the fact that Tsunade thought she could handle the same training the legendary Mito Uzumaki had mastered made her blush. She was no Mito; she didn’t even hail from a noteworthy shinobi clan. What right did she have to tread on sacred ground meant for gods and legends?
“It sounds like a cruel place,” Sakura said.
“It is. But its cruelty will keep you safe from the outside world. If you can survive that place, you can survive anything.”
Tsunade looked at her earnestly, desperately even. A place that would keep her safe…
Like Shizune and Kakashi and half of Konoha no longer were after Pein’s invasion.
But Sakura wanted to do more than survive. Training with Tsunade had shown her that she could make a difference. She could rise. She could win. Maybe she could even help find justice for those who no longer had the chance.
And besides, she had always been particularly adept at beating poisons.
“So? What will it be, Sakura?”
For the chance to surpass even the Hokage? Was such a power even within her grasp? Tsunade seemed to think so. And if she succeeded…
“I promise, Sakura-chan. I’ll bring him back.”
She could picture Naruto’s sunny smile that day so long ago. Nothing, not even the monster under his skin would keep him from his word. Even if it cost him his sanity, his life, his love. Nothing would ever make him break that promise to her.
“It’s the promise of a lifetime!”
Sakura clenched her fists so hard her nails broke the skin. “When do I leave?”
“But you died,” Sakura said. “I was there.”
“I remember,” Sasori said.
“This isn’t possible!”
“What an ignorant thing for a medical ninja to say.” He eyed a falling light and caught it in his palm. It settled there a moment until he snuffed it out with his fist. “Especially in a place like this.”
Sakura hardly heard him as she tried to process the reality of him standing right there. If she reached for him, what would he feel like? Was he a ghost come to haunt her, as he haunted her dreams?
A dream, yes.
She lurched toward him and reached, desperate to feel nothing at all because he couldn’t possibly be.
“What are you—”
She grabbed his wrist. It was the last thing she remembered doing before she somehow ended up pinned to the wall. Golden chakra strings snaked around her limbs. He was out of reach.
“You… You’re—” She couldn’t even say it.
There was a pause as they regarded each other and Sakura tried to convince herself she had not gone mad after all. His look changed from hostile to coldly pensive, so subtle that she would not have noticed had he not been standing so close.
“You didn’t mean to,” he said, almost a question.
“Didn’t mean to what?” She should have asked. But all she could think was that he had his strings around her throat and she could not move. All her training, all these years, and she was still fighting a losing battle back in that cave.
“Pointless.” He released her, and she gagged as sensation returned to her limbs. The white ivy clung to her as if to draw her into the wall.
He turned from her, and Sakura was left with no choice but to believe. He was here, he was alive, and…
“What did I do?” she asked, her voice cracking.
He stopped and cast her a glance over his shoulder. Red bangs fell into his warm eyes, shapely and large for a man’s. Uncanny, the likeness he’d captured all those years ago. Almost perfect.
“You remembered me.”
Sakura blinked. She could not say when she had begun to cry, and she could not say why. Just the sight of him, the feel of him—
“But you’re real,” she said. “You’re human.”
He clenched his fist, and his strange, golden chakra writhed between his fingers. “I’ve always been human to you.”
Of all the twists and turns Sasori had accounted for in his endless planning, he could honestly say he had never imagined an outcome quite like this. And he was not sure how he felt about it.
The last sight he saw before darkness, and the first to call him back from it. In between…nothing. Numbing. Familiar.
“But you’re real. You’re human.”
He could have laughed at her, but the joke was on him, then and now. And there just seemed to be no point in dragging it out any longer. Who was he fooling, anyway? “I’ve always been human to you.”
She shook her head. “No, that’s… No.”
That did something to her. He watched her denial slip through her fingers with her tears and leave her stranded and alone with only him.
“My god… It really is you.”
Is it really me?
Sasori was not sure. For all his genius, even he had failed to outpace death. But there was no jutsu at work here, no reanimation, no conjuring. There was only her and this haunted place that he felt deeply, though he did not recognize it.
“What is this place?” he asked.
She swallowed, wary. “The Shikkotsu Forest.”
Unbidden, Sasori remembered a dark and cold night from a lifetime ago. The heat of a fire warmed his untested palms, and a silken voice filled his ears.
“Some places cannot be found,” Orochimaru told him. “Neither by the living nor the dead.”
“Then by who?”
“It’s a sacred place. A…mad place,” Sakura said.
“Only by those who remember,” Orochimaru said, smiling, “and the ones they can’t forget.”
He let the memory fade and looked at her. Older, fuller, a woman grown. And yet, unsettlingly familiar.
“Are you here to kill me?” She stared at him, her tears dried and sticky upon her cheeks.
If only it were so simple.
A terrible cholera coiled beneath his skin at the sight of her there, staring doe-eyed and still, still disbelieving, and he had to go. He had to go.
She did not call for him when he disappeared into the forest.
Sakura was alone the rest of the day. The forest was quiet like usual, and the floating, golden lights lingered like usual. She began thinking of them as pyreflies, clinging to carrion the way they had clung to Sasori. Many of them even left with him, and like him, they had not returned.
She couldn’t bring herself to resume her training while he was out there somewhere. Maybe watching her, maybe lying in wait. He said he wasn’t here to kill her, but how could she believe him? No one could hold a grudge like Sasori could. Sakura had seen that power first-hand.
She had died for it.
Her fingers found his scar under her red shirt, bubbled and pink. It had never healed right, and she’d never bothered to try. It was as much a part of her as a limb or an eye. His scar…
“What’s happening to me?”
The forest gave her no answer. She thought of Mito Uzumaki, who had found herself alone in this mad place before Sakura. How had she survived here? The solitude, the silence—it was suffocating. And all the protection and purification seals in the world could do nothing for Sakura now.
It was this place.
Somehow, it had brought him back.
She didn’t know how. She didn’t understand it. But there was no point in denying it. It was real…he was real. And he was here with her, somewhere.
Was it a test?
What did it mean? And why?
There were only so many vegetables Sakura could chop up for her lunch before she started to feel like a paranoid housewife wondering if he would ever come back.
She would never sleep again.
Wide awake, Sakura got out of bed and lingered, phantomwise, in the doorway. Looping runes carved into the walls spoke to her, apocryphal voices of those who had been here before. They would remain long after she was gone. That thought made her terribly, terribly sad.
She ran her fingers over them as she passed. Beyond the doorway lay a bath of golden pyreflies, suspended in time.
Is that what we are?
In a moment of madness, she knew it had to be him. Not Tsunade, not Kakashi, not Naruto or Ino or Lee or all the others whose eyes she had slowly opened, but the one who had opened her eyes first.
He emerged from the shadows of the forest, and the pyreflies melted before him as he approached her. Their golden light reflected in his eyes, eyes that had seen the truth of her and paid the ultimate price. He dared not come closer.
She shivered. He spoke her name like arsenic, softly swallowing.
“There’s no leaving this place,” he said.
A part of her wondered if she’d fallen asleep after all. There was a certain dream-like quality to Sasori as he was now illuminated in pyre light at the edge of the shadows.
“No,” she said softly. “Not until I finish what I started.”
He regarded her with a pensive sort of disdain. “Then it appears our interests are aligned, for now.”
Sakura took a step toward him, but she dared not let go of the sealing wall, afraid she might not find her way back. “Then we agree. You and I… It’s in the past.”
He took his time answering her, which unsettled her deeply. Sasori was never one to drag things out, unless…
“Sleep,” he said, turning away. “You’re dead on your feet.”
Wraithlike, he melted once more into the shadows and took the light with him.
He never did give her an answer.