He heard the hum of the machines at his bedside first and the steady beep of a heart rate monitor. His eyelids fluttered open reluctantly and his vision blurred with tears as the bright light bested him. Fingers twitched as feeling returned to them very gradually and a chair screeched beside him as it dragged across the scratched linoleum tiles.
“I…” he tried to speak but his voice rasped with the lack of use.
“Naruto,” a familiar voice cursed him partly in relief and partly in annoyance.
His body was sore and he turned his head slowly to his side so as to get a better look at the person whom had spoken. He smiled but his muscles strained with the effort to hold it in place and could only manage a small, soft smile. Thoughts swam around in his mind like koi in a pond; evasive when he wanted them and present when there was no need for them.
Realization dawned on him. He shot up and began in a rush, “Sakura-the mission-what happened-are the others-”
He burst into a fit of coughs at the strain he had put on his voice and his chest heaved with pain. A pair of firm, petite hands forced him back down onto the iron cast, sterile hospital bed. The expression in the medic’s sea foam eyes silenced him immediately and he let his body fall against the mattress; though his mind felt as though it had been hurled into an abyss and was still falling.
“The mission was a success,” she managed in a quiet whisper and a bemused expression flitted across his boyish features.
Something had gone wrong, he was certain of it. Why else would he be lying in a hospital bed, incapacitated with a red eyed medic by his side? The mission was something they had both worked towards for little less than half of their lives and if it was a success, why did she look like somebody had died?
He tried to sit up again but the slight pressure Sakura added to his chest made him back down. She looked as though she was on the verge of tears and all he wanted to do was comfort her as nothing could make her cry now. Something really awful must have happened but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“Sakura-chan…” he trailed off uncertainly. Maybe he would be pushing it if he asked and maybe he didn’t want to know what had happened.
Suddenly, he remembered something. He demanded, “Sasuke-bastard, Sakura, where’s Sasuke?”
A painful silence reigned over the room. Naruto tried to capture Sakura’s jade eyes but she avoided his demanding gaze. He saw her shoulders shake as she tried to restrain her tears and waited for her to answer.
“Sasuke-kun didn’t come back, Naruto,” she told him, her heart breaking all over again with every single word.
Naruto’s brow furrowed for a few moments. Then, a relieved smile flitted across his face and he nudged her slightly, “Haha, very funny, Sakura-chan. Seriously, where’s teme?”
“No, Naruto, Sasuke didn’t come back,” She repeated again more firmly this time. It was harder to say it the second time around and even she hadn’t fully accepted the truth. Naruto straightened up and this time, Sakura didn’t push him down.
The world stopped.
Naruto’s voice took on a pleading tone as he begged Sakura, “But you said the mission was a success and how could that be if…”
“Retrieving Sasuke wasn’t the mission objective, Naruto. It was to kill Orochimaru,” she reminded him bitterly and suddenly, all the pieces clicked into place.
“No…” Naruto began, his cerulean eyes widening.
He couldn’t think clearly, his mind was an endless string of denial that refused to let the truth in. He could have sworn he had seen Sasuke on the mission and the name caused long lost memories to surface in an abyssal pool of doubt.
Sasuke, sitting on a pier, Sasuke, leaning against the bridge, Sasuke, smirking at Ichiraku’s, Sasuke, glaring back at him with blood red Sharingan, Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke*-
“Teme,” he called the nickname.
Where was the bastard’s answer? Where was the annoying ‘dobe’ he would have given his heart to hear? Naruto waited and waited for an answer, repeating the name over and over again in case Sasuke hadn’t heard. The answer he so desperately longed for never came.
“Sasuke!” he screamed until his voice broke.
His voice made Sakura’s resolve shatter and the windows shake with emotion. His screams were loud enough for the entire hospital to hear but no one came running into his room to check what was wrong. The dream Team 7 had been lost in an endless ocean of revenge and ambition till it hit the ocean floor and was washed away by waves of regret.
When Naruto finally came to terms with Sakura’s painful words a half hour later, he let his blonde head drop dejectedly into his hands. The pink haired medic beside him felt the despair that was almost as bad as her own, felt the pain that flowed through both of their veins and felt the crack in her heart where one more person should have been.
She sat down on the edge of his hospital bed and he felt the taut springs sink with the added weight. Although Naruto’s screams had been almost too difficult to bear, his stony silence was twice as heart wrenching. Sakura’s shoulders began to tremble very slowly as she tried to control her breathing. She became self conscious of the pastel curtain that covered her face and hid behind it so that Naruto wouldn’t see the soft pearls trickle down her face like rivulets of blood.
“I-I’m so sorry Naruto,” she whispered shakily. She didn’t trust herself to speak any louder because if she did, she knew he would hear her tears.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he told her in an empty voice.
“No, I’m sorry I wasn’t with you…on the mission,” she was finding it harder and harder to keep on talking. Naruto’s head lifted from his calloused hands and his cerulean eyes bore through the curtain of pink to meet her avoiding gaze.
“If I had gone maybe I could have helped-” her voice broke at the end of her sentence and she gasped loudly for air in the choking and incriminating silence.
A large hand tentatively touched her shoulder and she met a pair of watery cyan eyes.
As she threw herself into Naruto’s waiting embrace, a flood of pain and acceptance broke through her crumbling walls. Sasuke was gone, gone, and for now they were all that was left of the original Team 7. Her fingers gripped the front of his hospital gown until her knuckles turned white and his arms crushed her to his muscular frame, the both of them holding onto each other as if they were drowning and were each other’s only hope to survive.
And all heroes fell.
Sometimes they fell in a blaze of long sought after glory and sometimes they fell like dominoes but sometimes, they slipped through the cracks unnoticed and unbidden until it was too late to bring them back.