A Bridge of Bonds and Scars
1. The Patient
He isn't in the village often, but when he is, he sees her without fail. Tsunade and Shizune tried to shield her at first, but it quickly became pointless. No one knows if he insists that she be the attending physician, or if she insists on being the attending physician, but everyone knows not to interfere.
If it is something minor and she is in surgery, he will wait. If it is something major – which it rarely is – he will still wait. Usually one of the braver medics or nurses will alert Tsunade or Sakura or Shizune on those rare occasions that it appears he needs more immediate attention. They all know he will not let them near.
Eventually, he bypasses the registration desk entirely and goes directly to a certain room in a less trafficked wing of the hospital where they tend to more serious or dangerous patients.
She always knows when he has arrived by the shift in the air pressure, and the curious pricking of electricity along her spine.
If she can't go to him right away, she sends word.
He always waits.
When she arrives, her visits are professional and efficient.
Sasuke appreciates this.
He has never been one for conversation, and he understands that she has a job to do.
Still, she manages to inquire after him in the only way she can.
"What on earth did you do this time?" she mutters, waiting for an explanation for his latest set of injuries which includes a rather spectacular puncture wound that is probably a snake bite (that would have killed someone else). She arches an eyebrow and asks, "Investigating near Oto again?"
He holds her gaze and his silence.
Sakura sighs. "That is a pertinent question," she says patiently, snapping on her gloves. "I have many anti-venoms, and this bite could have come from several snakes. I'm not worried about it killing you, but in case you failed to notice," she sits on a low stool and pushes away his tattered pants leg, "it is eating away at your skin."
She traces careful fingers across the bruised and mottled flesh on his leg, her chakra glowing around her glove. "That tells me this could have come from several different snakes," she continues. "Since you have a very high tolerance to any kind of venom, I can't check for normal symptoms on you. This level of damage to your soft tissue borders on putrefaction," she frowns and reaches for gauze to dab at the ugly wound.
"There are only a few venoms I know of that could do something like this to someone like you," she says, throwing away the gauze and getting a fresh pad. "All of them can continue to rot the flesh, if not treated properly. Two of them result in death 99% of the time. One can cause extensive and permanent nerve damage. One particularly nasty venom targets the brain, and can drive the victim insane."
She flicks a glance up at him before returning her attention to his leg with a shrug.
"It's simple," she says, pressing a probing finger into the angry wound, and ignoring the tightening of his jaw. "I need to know what I am dealing with. You can either wait for analysis – which will take a significant amount of time, and shortens our window of treatment, which, judging from the state your leg, is swiftly closing," she warns with another jab of her finger followed by swabbing at something green oozing from his skin. "Or," she looks up at him, pointedly, "you can give me a geographic area and I can be finished inside of five minutes." She shrugs again. "Your choice."
She feels rather than hears him sigh.
"Near Oto," he allows.
"Now was that so hard?" she asks, her sarcasm packaged and delivered with a sweet smile. She rolls the stool back, and heads to her cabinets. "Thank you for your cooperation," she says over her shoulder. "Now I can do my job."
She had already narrowed down the suspects, but knowing the bite happened near Oto allows her to pinpoint the culprit in minutes. She finishes cleaning the wound and administers the anti-venom, putting several vials aside to send with him, each labeled with general geographic location. She then mends the flesh, satisfied that the compounds that had been rotting it are now neutralized, and won't undo her efforts.
"I don't know where you will go next," she says matter-of-factly as she tosses away her gloves and washes her hands, "and I know your resistance to these kinds of injuries is very high. Still, it is better to be cautious. Take the general antidotes I am sending with you. Shizune and I worked them up using some of Chiyo-baasama's research."
She seals the articles in a scroll and hands them to him. He gives a nod of thanks as his fingers barely brush hers.
She watches him thoughtfully.
"In this hospital," she looks around the room, "my clearance is over that of any mission. To put it blunty? I outrank you. You can, and have to give me information that will help me treat you."
"Understood," he says, rising to his feet.
He stops to look down at her expectantly.
Her jade eyes rove over his face as she gathers her thoughts on the back of her tongue. In the end, she offers a simple:
A slow smirk creeps across his face.
"Is that an order?"
"You're no good with orders," she snorts.
The smirk widens.
"Just what I need," she mutters. "One more insubordinate subordinate. Just try not to get yourself killed."
His smirk melts into something softer, and his fingers tap the diamond on her forehead, offering a familiar assurance.
"I'll see you next time."
2. The Doctor
She is still haunted by echoes and memories of the past.
She is still reconciling the Boy that Left with the One that Returned, and her memories alternate between bitter goodbyes, betrayals, and soul-deep reconciliations.
He is different now that his hate has been dispelled.
She isn't sure what she knows anymore.
But she doesn't doubt her heart.
So when the past whispers, and old specters of fear try to claw at her heart, she shoves them away.
Time quiets the ghosts, however, and Sakura begins to hear more from the files and charts in her possession than the whispers of the past.
His medical history is telling his story from examination to examination, and in the little space on her sheet where she records her notes.
Minor changes present themselves at every new meeting.
He is more careful in his movements so as not to startle her, and she is more conservative in hers, maintaining the appropriate clinical distance and demeanor.
He occasionally tells her a word or two about something he has seen, or brings her a sample of a plant or remedy he has stumbled across in his travels.
She charts roughly where he has been and makes sure his immunizations are current, and that his medicinal supplies are always well stocked before he leaves.
When he leaves, she never knows when he will return, and has stopped guessing when it might be.
But in her bones, she knows he will return, and that gives her heart some peace.
3. Medical History
She is concentrating as she mends the damage done by a poison dipped kunai that was raked across his chest.
He sits in silence as she extracts the poison from the wound and has a medic take it to Shizune for analysis.
Neither mentions the time she intended to attack him with a similar weapon, and how he tried to kill her, and how Naruto both saved her and got cut by the poisoned blade.
But they both remember.
He watches her closely as she puts the sterile white pad on the wound slashing across his chest before binding it with gauze. She asks him if it is too tight, if he can move, if he can breathe, if there is discomfort from the binding, and he answers all with a negative. Satisfied, she puts a seal on the binding and activates it.
"I can't heal the wound fully until the last traces of poison flush out of your system," she explains, reaching for his chart and making notes. That seal will keep the bindings in place, and when the last of the poison is gone, it will release the small dose of healing chakra needed to complete the job. Whole process should take two – three days at most. Assuming you don't get poisoned again in the meantime," she checks something off and he smirks at her.
"I'll try not to," he shrugs, and she looks up at him sharply, but her retort dies on her tongue when she sees the hint of amusement in his mismatched eyes.
"Hn," she replies, and looks back to the chart, but he sees the smirk pulling at her lips.
Their appointments fall into a pattern.
In their years apart they forged their own stories and lives, and as much as they each would like to ask the other about it, they don't.
She can't really take the time to discuss her work or her life outside of it.
He can't share particulars about his missions.
She asks general questions.
He gives general information.
She can't ask what her heart secretly wants to know about his condition. Is he alone? Is he safe? Will he return? Where will he go next, and how worried should she be?
So she asks how he is feeling, is that a new scar, does he need more antidotes, and should she stock his medical supplies.
He can't ask about her life outside of the hospital. Is she happy? Does she still overuse her own chakra when healing others, despite his warnings to her? Does she still wait for word of his coming, and who does she spend her time with? Where does her heart live, and is it lost to him?
So he observes intently and listens, occasionally asking carefully worded questions.
They can't talk about the past or the future.
They only have the present.
And in that present, she reads and interprets his archive of scars like one solving a mystery.
He can discuss injuries and scars.
Those all have their stories.
He can tell her those.
Carefully she builds a patient profile, and catalogues the details.
She pieces together his clipped accounts and the physiological evidence to form her prognoses.
They can't ask about the past.
But they are building a history together, just the same.
His next visit comes on the heels of his exposure a parasite that feeds on chakra. There is no real cause for alarm; his vast stores are hardly depleted. However, the parasite injects its victims with a compound that blocks the chakra pathways temporarily, so even though he has vast amounts of chakra, he can't utilize it without risking damage to his chakra network.
Sakura calls Hinata in to help that day. The compound has deteriorated considerably, but the chakra flow is slow to return. After a preemptive apology to Sasuke and his gruff nod of consent, Hinata uses her Gentle Fist techniques to forcibly restore the chakra flow. She helps Sakura heal the immediate bruising, and she apologizes again.
He doesn't say it, but Sasuke is surprised by how strong the soft spoken kunoichi has become, and thinks that perhaps she can balance out Naruto after all.
Naruto stops by and ribs Sasuke for being beat up by his girlfriend.
Sakura chuckles, and Sasuke glowers.
But there is no malice there, and when he leaves, there is no tension.
Naruto slings an arm around Sakura's shoulders.
"He'll be back," he says good-naturedly.
"I know," Sakura sighs. "He is due for his next round of immunizations in three months."
"Maybe," Naruto says, ruffling her hair. "But that's not why he'll return."
Days slide into months.
Appointments are dutifully recorded, and reported, and added to the thickening file.
She has other patients, of course, and is often called out of the hospital or into the field.
It isn't unusual for her to be called away.
It's just routine.
The time she is summoned to his side, though, that is frightening.
Naruto senses the trouble nearby and collects her with two words.
They arrive in time to take out the remaining attackers and both her and Naruto catch him before he collapses to the ground. They go to a nearby cave, and Naruto has to help her to remove his bloodied and battered clothing. Both Naruto and the clones he made to help are pleased that she is able to keep him mostly covered (they don't need to see that) and work quickly.
When he comes to, Sasuke is warm, in clean, loose clothing, and she is carefully working with a mortar and pestle near the fire. He turns his head to watch her – eyes burning bright, concentration absolute.
She feels his eyes on her and looks up sharply. She gingerly puts down her supplies before crossing to help him sit up and drink some water.
He gives a nod of thanks and, after determining he is alright, she silently returns to her task.
"What are you doing?"
His deep voice, while not loud, is a stark contrast to the muffled silence of their impromptu shelter.
"I had a surgery earlier today," she says quietly. "I am lower on chakra than normal, and I don't want to tap into this," she flicks a glance to her marking on her forehead "unless we need to. This will help until tomorrow. I'll be up to full reserves by then."
It is another ten minutes before they speak again.
"I'm going to tend the wounds on your back and chest," she informs him, bringing her supplies over to his bedroll and sitting back on her heels. "Can you remove your shirt?"
He unties the belt holding the soft cotton of his shirt closed. Wordlessly, she helps him to remove it.
She then folds the garment neatly and places it to the side before turning to attend to his wounds. He had been unconscious when they first arrived at their makeshift shelter, so he hadn't registered when both she and Naruto washed and disinfected his wounds.
"This won't do more than sting," she promises, applying the paste carefully.
It doesn't sting at all, really.
It is cooling and soothing.
The paste is.
Her touch is another story altogether.
The little bit of chakra she used to infuse the paste makes it solidify into thin plasters, sealing the wounds.
Naruto returns, and stokes the fire, and seals the cave.
"Y'know, Teme," he says, watching Sakura carefully apply the paste. "If you really wanted a good fight, I'm not that hard to find. Or is it that you wanted me and Sakura-chan to join in, like old times."
"Hn." Sasuke replies, but there is a hint of a smile on his face. Sakura continues to tend to his wounds while he briefly tells Naruto what had happened on his mission to put him in that predicament. Naruto leaves a clone and goes to look for any survivors in the hopes of tracking them back to their encampment.
Sakura looks over Sasuke critically.
"Ribs," she directs, and he maneuvers himself to face her. Her fingers are strong and gentle on the gashes across his side, and linger when she detects an older, poorly healed injury. "I'll tend to that tomorrow," she promises. She peers at another wound, gently rubbing her thumb over it.
"What from," she asks, turning her attention to the other wounds flecking and striping his chest.
"That one was from the Land of Water."
Sakura pauses, but keeps her face impassive. "From that time?" she asks.
"No," he shakes his head. "Those have mostly faded, now."
"Good," she breathes, carefully sealing the wound. With every scar, her heart whispers a prayer.
That he hadn't been alone.
That he hadn't been in too much pain.
She offers marrow-deep gratitude that the scar left a mark but did not take his life.
He explains various scars and wounds, and she thumbs over a few, inspecting them. She carefully traces a thin line to the cut on his cheek and on his forehead and over his eyebrow.
"That about does it," she says, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. She snaps the gloves off, and seals up the salve. "Let me help you," she nods to the folded shirt. It is a light cotton garment; the kind used for patients in the hospital and in the field. He slips on the shirt and wraps it around himself, one sleeve hanging limply at his side. She helps tie the garment into place, ignoring the warmth of his skin under her fingertips.
"Your injuries on your legs were minor," she assures him, putting her hands in her lap, and nodding to where his legs are covered.
Sasuke looks under the covers and frowns.
"These are not my pants."
"Your pants are in tatters," Sakura shrugs. "These are from the hospital. Naruto and some clones took care of getting you changed.
She laughs when he fails to suppress his shudder.
He watches her pack away her supplies before inspecting the small cauldron of soup.
"You can go get Naruto," she says over her shoulder.
The clone straightens up from where he has been slouched in boredom at the entrance.
"On it!" he says cheerily, and dispels.
Sakura chuckles to herself and fills a bowl with the warm, nourishing meal.
She makes sure Sasuke is comfortable before handing him his bowl, and getting her own.
They eat in silence for a while.
"I don't think any of those wounds will scar," she offers, stirring her soup. "So no adding to the collection this time."
"What a pity," he says stonily. "All of that work and nothing to show for it."
"Yeah, well," she snorts into her soup, "don't put quite so much effort into maiming yourself next time. Naruto and I can't always be there."
Sasuke gives a dry "ah" but they both know that they will always be there for him.
Later that night, she changes a few bandages, eyeing scars they have not yet discussed.
"Another time," he offers.
She holds his gaze, before smiling softly.
"Another time," she agrees.
It isn't long before they are all sleeping in their own bedrolls.
Except Sasuke isn't sleeping.
He is listening to the susurrus of Sakura's breathing, and the erratic bursts of Naruto's snoring.
A familiar peace settles over him from the days of genin missions and Team Seven.
And in that stillness, he allows himself to marvel at the obvious.
They came for him.
He knows he shouldn't be surprised, but his chest still warms at the thought.
He watches Sakura.
'Naruto and I can't always be there,' might what she says, but she is wrong.
They have always been with him, even when even he was certain he had forgotten every bond he had in this life, and had left them all behind.
Naruto always knew better – Sasuke doesn't have to tell him.
Sakura is a different story.
He hasn't been able to tell her.
He glances down at his bandaged body.
Maybe after a few more scars.
And a few more stories.
Maybe then, he'll tell her.
6. Next time
The wound is at the top of his incomplete left arm.
The remains of the arrow are removed, and she handles him with what a civilian might call tenderness, but what she insists is professional care.
Her hand glows green and hovers over the skin as it knits back together. She carefully applies a salve with two gloved fingers, focusing on the position of the wound on his arm, and absently noting that had it cut the brachial artery, this might be a different session entirely.
He watches her, and can still see her healing both he and Naruto at the end of the war.
He has never replaced that arm, for reasons he refuses to articulate.
That is personal history.
"Have you experienced any phantom pain?" she asks, her features carefully neutral as she tends to the one injury he has never let her completely heal.
"No," he says. "Not for a while now."
A ghost of a smile hovers on her lips.
Nothing more is said on the subject, and they both ignore the phantoms that linger in sharp memories of a life before atonement.
He watches her put the supplies away. She occasionally jots something on her notepad while muttering about what needs to be restocked.
She looks down at two small, squat jars in her hand.
"Will you be leaving immediately?" she asks.
"As soon as I am able."
"Then here," she takes one of the jars and hands it to him. "Put that salve on evening and morning for the next five days, at the very least. Ten days would be even better. You can use it as often as you need; it stimulates the chakra flow and helps keep out infection."
He takes the jar in his hands and inspects it closely while she checks the time.
She turns and grabs the white coat hanging on a peg on the wall. She yanks one arm into the sleeve, and fishes behind herself for the other.
The dangling end of her coat is suddenly pulled across her shoulders, and she freezes in place. She slowly looks over her shoulder to see Sasuke where she left him, but she can still feel lingering warm pressure of a hand.
She turns slowly, working her arm into the remaining sleeve.
"I will leave in the morning," he says without preamble. "At first light."
"I'll be here," she shrugs. "Come by if you need your bandages seen to."
"Shouldn't you be home at that hour?"
She shakes her head.
"I am needed here. I'll probably take a nap on the cot in my office before taking up the rest of my shift." She chuckles. "Don't look at me like that," she chides him gently. "I can handle it."
He still looks displeased.
"If it makes you feel better," she says with an impish tilt to her smile, "you can bring me some food or strong tea when you come for your morning visit. I'll change your wrappings, and you can see with your own eyes that I'm a big, tough, kunoichi before you get on your way."
She ignores his disapproval as she gathers up her things and heads for the door. "See you in the morning?"
He stands and crosses to the door. "In the morning," he mutters begrudgingly.
He opens the door for her, and she arches an eyebrow at his irritation.
"Don't exhaust yourself this time," he warns.
"I won't," she rolls her eyes. "I know what I'm doing, Sasuke."
He doesn't reply, but she smiles just the same. She is paged, so she waves hastily before walking briskly down the hall, leaving him to see himself out.
It is well after midnight when she finally drags herself to her office to snag few quick hours of sleep. She checks the time and sets an alarm before immediately passing out.
Even though she has slept well and taken a shower, her fatigue doesn't escape his notice.
"When does your shift end?" he asks as she re-bandages his arm.
"This afternoon," she says, swallowing a yawn.
"And will you get some rest?" he asks, an edge in his tone.
"Yeah," she half smiles. "You will leave right from here, won't you?"
"Ah," he says, watching her precise movements as she tends to his arm.
She ties off the last bandage and smooths it on his arm. "Finished," she says softly. She washes her hands and replaces the supplies and busies herself while he replaces his shirt and cloak.
She turns to face him, and finds him still sitting, perched on the edge of the examination table, and watching her.
She raises her eyebrows at him, but he just shakes his head slowly. "You really are annoying."
She narrows her eyes to retort, but stops short at the feeling of his fingers tapping her forehead.
She looks into his eyes then, and knows what he will say before he says it.
"I know," she says with a hollow cheerfulness. "Next time."
"Three weeks," he says, his fingertips sliding gently down her temple, his thumb brushing her cheek. "Be ready."
"Ready..." she asks, puzzled. "Ready for what?"
"Pack light," he instructs. "Seal sturdy clothes for winter in your scrolls, and any medicines or antidotes you feel you might need. I do not know how long we will be gone."
It takes her a moment to process this information.
"A mission?" she asks neutrally, trying to quell any hope from fluttering in her heart.
"Of sorts," he allows.
And suddenly, she understands.
"I'll be ready."
Whether it is luck or a carefully executed plan, she cannot say, but her workload at the hospital shifts dramatically. She finds her schedule is clearing. The day before she expects him, Tsunade stops by her office before leaving.
"Good night, Sakura," her mentor says, before stopping to catch her eye. "Don't forget, I expect regular reports... no matter what your mission is."
"Understood," she says, and the words are easier than goodbye.
He comes to his examination uninjured.
He leaves Konoha three days later with no idea when he will return.
But this time, he has learned from his mistakes.
He does not leave in anger.
He does not leave with lead in his heart and veins.
He does not leave to search for what will fill his heart.
This time, when he leaves, she is by his side.
And his heart is full.
And they are done writing their history.
This time, they are writing their future.
Thanks for reading!