nineteen: foci

The yellow blur that collided into Sasuke couldn't have been anyone but Naruto, but Neji still tensed with a decade of training: if you weren't inside the gates, you weren't safe. (And frankly, even if you were inside the gates—no promises.) The two teammates grappled with each other for a moment—hard to tell if it was an embrace or a fight, or a bit of both—before Sasuke managed to shove Naruto out to arm's length and drag him from the tree canopy to the ground for a terse, whispered conversation. Oblivious to everyone else, the two friends grasped each other painfully.

Behind him was Sakura's tired chuckle; he looked to see her smiling at the two of them, the hollows under her eyes lifted just a little. Her face, fuller. She was exhausted still, and he'd seen her put a healing hand to her head every once in a while during their journey, but she was moving and alert, which was good enough for now. Neji had found himself watching for a slip or a stumble to send her crashing through the trees—he'd had more than one mission end badly thanks to chakra exhaustion or pure fatigue, and none of those men had been coming home following a coma.

Shikamaru, too, had been watching her carefully from his position to her right: the placement of her feet, the little shake in her hands, it all went recorded. Now, Neji saw Nara's heavy-lidded eyes fixate on her elbows, where an arm bent to rest against the sturdy heft of an oak. There were quiet calculations in the shadow-user's every blink.

Below them, Naruto and Sasuke were exchanging small, quiet words. Naruto's hand cupped Sasuke's neck in friendly claim, and while Sasuke showed no physical reciprocation he had leaned in, slightly, to answer a question. That was probably as good as it got between the two.

Unbidden, unwanted, and with a sharp pain like inhaling with a broken rib: Lee. Shame rose in Neji in acidic waves. Sakura and her problems and her teammates' problems had been a center of gravity for him recently, enough so that even the death of his closest friend was orbiting further away. Perhaps it was self-preservation; there was no way to grieve here, like this. It still felt shameful to forget.

Naruto looked up then, and sped up to the treetops, smashing through two branches, apparently only just realizing Sakura, too, was waiting to greet him. Neji sidestepped to avoid Naruto as he met Sakura mid-jump, catching her with one arm around her neck and the other around the back of her shoulders, stopping her still near the base of the tree. Sakura's arms went around Naruto's waist with easy familiarity. Neji watched as they stood there for a moment, unmoving, just breathing around each other. Something hollow fell into his stomach.

Too many emotions in the room. It had taken him entirely too long to decipher the way Shikamaru watched Sakura move, and longer to realize why he himself had taken such note of it. Genius by birth and training the shinobi of the Nara clan might be, but they never turned their attention to anyone or anything unless it was a known hazard or a crafted benefit. Since the mission in Suna, Shikamaru had subtly bestowed select attentiveness on their common teammate, but the consequences hadn't found form in Neji's head, really, until he'd seen the two of them sitting together after Hokage's inauguration, with Shikamaru's fingers actually in Sakura's hair—an absurd lapse in judgment from one of Konoha's most intelligent nin—and Sakura's face lit by the exploding stars above.

Then he'd had a week with her on the way to Iron, scaling mountains and watching her shoulder uncommon weight. He'd had to hold her to keep her from shaking, and he'd poured her tea with her skin warm from a shower, and he'd watched her lie unmoving and horrifying, blood in her nose, eyes blank and black. She'd gone to visit him in the hospital in Suna and he had confessed everything to her, his fears, his clear greeting of death.

Neji had time to consider the weight of such scenes on the two-day journey to Konoha, with the feel of Sakura's skin apparently seared into the pads of his fingers. The fact was, Nara never played games they didn't have a strategy to win. That alone made it seem suddenly prudent to close off the open loop of thoughts that had been passing through his head since his time in Mifune's tender care, watching Sakura breathe unevenly, feeling her chakra circle his own coils, understanding that she would likely die.

And it was clear that Shikamaru and Sakura got on well together, that they fit well—equals in intelligence if not in ambition, and in loyalty if not in affability. Not that he and Sakura didn't get on well; back in Suna, hadn't she gone to his hospital room first, sat briefly with him, talked to him about her troubles? He'd felt pride and companionship in that. The tea they'd shared, and his forays into her confidence, his time helping her meditate, being on watch for her moments of derangement—had that been made of similar stock? So much had changed so quickly, recently. So many new affections and affectations.

He would hold onto that pride, for now. The rest may have to fall away. It would not do to complicate things beyond their current state of entanglement.

"Hyuuga." Below, Shikamaru jerked his head. No one else was on the treeline. They had leapt below to offer Naruto and Sakura more space, more privacy, and Neji was standing on the sidelines like a fool. He saw the Uchiha staring up at him, his face a curious mask.

He could hear Naruto and Sakura's mingled breathing, a couple exchanged words. Then Sakura extricated herself from her teammate's arms, and Naruto blinked blearily to see Neji standing only feet away, watching their embrace. "Sakura-chan, you have new bodyguards, eh?"

In a lighter mood, he would have scoffed, but Neji only frowned lightly at the man he'd called a rival. "We're not yet at the gates. There's no point to letting our guard down now."

"I saw you coming," Naruto said with a small grin, finally fully removing himself from Sakura. "Couldn't wait. Kakashi wants you all at the hospital for rehydration, at least. Which sucks, because he's the one who always skips hospital visits after missions."

"That's the hypocrisy of leadership for you," Sakura groused without malice, reaching up to pat Naruto on the shoulder. "You'll be that annoying, one day." (From below, someone that sounded like Sai muttered, 'one day?')

"Anyway," Sakura continued, adjusting her pack, "Neji's right. We're not at the gates yet. You can be our bodyguard now. Keep going."

Naruto leapt down like a trained dog, and Neji let a sigh escape him; Sakura's clever glance found him just after. "One thing you can always say for Naruto," she murmured: "he will never let duty get in the way."

His smile felt more like a grimace, but she looked touched to see it anyway. "I suppose I can't scold him," Neji said, and against all his better judgment reached out to snap closed a pocket on her pack that Naruto had dislodged. "He must have worried for you."

"He said as much." Sakura stepped closer to him, preparing to join the others below the canopy, and then seemed to think again—she stopped in her motion and looked up at him, all green eyes and sun-dappled forehead. "I love him so much, Neji, it nearly kills me, honestly, and it's too late in coming. I hope…I really hope he finds someone who treats him better than we ever did."

She obviously meant Hinata; the way she'd said 'love him' had given Neji a strange, gutless feeling. She seemed to realize it had been too much—Sakura looked down again, apparently too tired to truly hide the blush that plucked at her face.

Once again, he found himself at a slight loss for words, and confused to be solicited for an answer—he contented himself by looking at the way her fingers clenched her pack, neatly buttoned now. "He may well find someone like that," he said, voice measured, "but he may well not want it."

Sakura blinked. "And that would be okay?"

"All Naruto has is love, and tons of it," he said, rather bluntly. Sakura breathed out a laugh. "I think it will be fine. Now," he said, and turned to her head-on for the first time in two days—"I think you should get home."

Being a subject at the hospital was infinitely irritating when one was usually on the other side of the clipboard. Seated on a hospital bed with the sleeves of Sai's shirt rolled past the elbow, her vitals taken twice over and foreign chakra sweeping her system, Sakura felt quite ready to pull a Kakashi and leap out the window—until Kakashi actually strolled through the door of the examination room, Shikamaru and Neji and Sasuke in tow, and Naruto a bleating and endearing hanger-on, asking nearly as many questions as the senior medic who was shining a light into her eyes.

"What could you tell of the poison?" she asked Sakura now.

"Unfortunately, not much. I was unconscious. Couldn't properly mold chakra to diagnose or purge. I think I was treating the symptoms more than anything else, because the poison was still flushed throughout Sasuke and Neji's systems by the time we got to Suna. The medics there did a normal extraction from the bloodstream and the liver before it could do much damage. From what I did sense, it seemed like a derivative of some kind of plant compound—not a venom. Cytotoxic. It didn't affect the nervous systems much."

"It was the diffusion that was unusual," Neji intoned from his spot leaning on the wall. He was frowning, reading the incomplete mission summary Kakashi had given them upon arrival at the hospital. "I understand airborne poisons are difficult to control and quick to dissipate. This one was detonated on-site and continuing to affect citizens for at least ten hours, according to TenTen's report."

"Probably something to do with the radius and composition of the bomb," Shikamaru muttered. "Suna has the tech locked down. I don't think, after all this, they'd mind if we sent a nin or two to look over it with them."

Kakashi inclined his head. "We're sending two R&D as soon as we're sure the borders are secure again."

Sakura tongued her front teeth. "Are the borders insecure? Were the rogues who attacked Ino and Genma involved in any way?"

"Doubtful," Shikamaru said. "That was bad timing. There was nothing there that aligned with Matsuo's plan for another shinobi war. Rogues are rogues—these guys weren't affiliated with anyone, that we could tell. They're still in T&I…but I doubt we'll get much out of them. Ino and Genma both have bounties that would at least pay for a couple of nights at a warm inn. That's enough for most stateless nin."

Kakashi hummed and looked out the window, apparently bored but, Sakura thought, not really fooling anyone. "Well, it sounds relatively simple from here. International intrigue, smaller villages being led by idiots, and the samurai getting too big for their breastplates. Mifune made an incredible mistake by capturing the three of you. He probably realized that as he was doing it and decided to double down."

Neji was still frowning. "That's completely irrational. He must have had a death wish. He worked with us in the war; he knew Konoha allegiances and strength."

"It was all playacting," Shikamaru said flatly. "He wanted to frame Suna for a plot against Kumo during the Matsuo mission, and then frame Konoha as a bully during the summit, and then to frame Kumo again for setting off the bomb. He had contingency plans. He couldn't have predicted Sakura, though, as an actor in both missions," Shikamaru added, throwing a conciliatory nod her way. "And he wouldn't have known she'd been acting as Tsukiko, and would recognize the chakra of samurai on that mission."

"That's how you sensed the bomb?" Kakashi asked.

Sakura shrugged. "I sensed something strange. Hosh wouldn't have still been alive unless he was being played or used for some other purpose; he'd betrayed the samurai, and that's usually a death sentence as far as I know. I couldn't think of any purpose that would not have required an immediate defense."

Kakashi regarded her for a moment. "You know, the Council will see this as a brilliant political move." He did not say it in approval.

"I would classify it more as a defensive move, actually, since the man in question was a walking bomb," Shikamaru said dryly.

"The Council will take note that you saved two very important pairs of eyes while making sure your team was split up to take evidence," Kakashi amended. "That counts to them as a political move. Don't be surprised if you get called to tea by a couple of conniving elders."

Naruto made a face. "Eurgh, Sakura, no, don't go into politics. Politics suck."

Sasuke, standing closest to the door, looked up at Naruto with an audibly exasperated 'tch'. "Do you want to be Hokage or not?"

Kakashi blink-smiled. "Alright, kids. Come find me after you get checked out. Mission captains can come to me with full reports this evening unless the doctor says to stay overnight. Don't make it too late. I have reading to catch up on."

Naruto snorted; but Kakashi was gone quicker than Sakura could blink, and almost immediately she felt the profound exhaustion she'd been waiting for, outside all the theorizing and bickering. She slumped against the bed, head fuzzy.

Neji did not look outwardly concerned, but she felt him move towards her as if to help her to bed. "We should leave you to rest."

"No," she said, unwilling to sleep without this one last thing: "I want to see Ino."

From his position at the foot of the bed, Shikamaru nodded. He had a cigarette tucked behind his ear, a sure sign that the mission was finally over. "I'll take you."

The late sun colored Konoha's last snow of the season; in front of the hospital, Sakura toed at a gritty, gray pile of half-melted slush, her fingers turned a weird orange in the half-light. She could still see her breath, and she found herself wishing for a little more warmth, after Iron, to make Konoha feel more like home.

Ino had felt like home. They'd sat together with Shikamaru and Tsunade bitching at each other in the background. Complaining about her shaved head, the hospital clothing, the extended bedrest, Shikamaru's smoking; Sakura had felt her chest fill with such intensity she thought she'd have a heart attack, but Ino had only patted her hand and kissed her cheek in the weird maternal way she always had, and then she'd asked, "So when are you two going to go out already?" and Shikamaru had choked on his cigarette, which of course he wasn't supposed to be smoking, and had immediately left the room, and Tsunade had demanded information in a motherly tone, and Ino had laughed and everything had been totally normal again, with the obvious exception of the sense-memory of Shikamaru's lips on her mouth.

Now, outside the hospital and away from the woman who had remained her closest and simplest friend, things seemed a little less normal. A miracle, the medic had said, considering her exposure to toxins and her days-long coma. "You medic-nin know how to take care of yourselves, I'll give you that." And Sakura had smiled despite herself to think, yes, that's true, and more trouble than it's worth. She and Tsunade had calculated: it was about ten years off her lifespan, sustaining the seal for as long as she had. Give or take a few months. She'd likely regret that later, if she had time to. But it had saved two lives, not including her own.

That was something: to feel capable again. In the wild chaos of the last moments at the shinobi summit, when she'd sensed Hosh, impossibly, outside the door, and realized that no one else would know what it meant, and she'd had to make a thousand choices at once, relying solely on instinct and whatever trust her partners had in her judgment—there hadn't been room to be afraid. There was only the need to act. That was what made her a good field medic and a good front-lines ninja, despite her skillset and—she could acknowledge it—her nature: passivity, uncertainty, cowardice had no time to bloom when things were happening so quickly. So she'd acted. She'd pumped her system with chakra, opened the seal on her forehead, called to an ally with an impenetrable defense, and manhandled two of the village's greatest assets so that no matter what, Mifune wouldn't think he'd won.

She'd even provided for Lee—beautiful, wonderful Lee—but too late, and too little.

Her feet moved of their own volition. The streets were nearly silent but for her lonely tap-taps on the roof of Ichiraku, of the old jeweler, of the fish market. A chill had pervaded the city since the sun fell below the horizon, winter's last-ditch effort. Sakura felt clear-eyed and strangely awake, given everything, even how weird it all was, and it was nice for once to be alone, or close enough, with quiet in her head and in the world outside.

Hokage Tower was a lonely sentry, and through the crack in the door to Kakashi's office she could see him resting his head in his hands, poring over a sheaf of papers. She waited a moment before knocking, but as soon as she did he motioned for her to come in. He knew she'd been watching. Tricky man.

She slipped through the door and closed it behind her. "Here for my mission report, Hokage, sir."

"Shouldn't you be sleeping?"

"Discharged. Neji and Sasuke are still in. Being a poisons expert has its benefits. You don't want to see me, sensei?"

"Maybe I was just worried about your well-being."

She snorted and immediately stopped; she sounded like Naruto. "That's sweet."

He looked up from his papers and smiled at her. His robes flopped, discarded, over the edge of his chair. "I'm sure I don't need to ask you to take a seat."

She took one, and waited.

Kakashi fiddled with a pen for a moment, then leaned back dangerously far in his chair. "I wouldn't advise being alone tonight, Sakura."

Her throat tightened involuntarily. "Because of Lee?"

Kakashi shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe because of your friend up here." He tapped a crooked finger on his temple. "Better not to be alone on the night right after a mission with a death, as a rule. Why isn't our golden boy pestering you to 'rest, Sakura-chan' right now?"

"He's staying with Sasuke in the hospital, so he'll likely be dead by morning." She shuffled her feet in Kakashi's chair. "Sai is in the house. I won't be alone."

Kakashi hummed with what sounded like concern, and Sakura shook her head. "I feel alright, actually. I was just thinking on the way over about how nice it feels to be… alone again."

Kakashi's gaze was so steady. For all that he had his head stuck in a book, the man never lost focus. "The Kazekage said you seemed better, in that respect. I couldn't help but notice that he seemed awfully interested in it."

As if she needed reminding. "He said once that it looked familiar," Sakura told him, crossing her legs on the seat like a child. "Not really the kind of compliment a girl hopes for, but I can understand why he's been taking note now that Shukaku's gone. Gaara is a morbid-fascination kind of guy."

Kakashi chuckle-sighed. "So are you, my cute little jounin. And how is, uh, she?"


He blinked. It always felt rather good to startle Kakshi. "You're going to have to explain that one."

She felt her face screwing up and tried to flatten it out. "Is it mission-critical, Kakashi-sensei?" It sounded like the whine it was.

"It's you-critical, at the very least." He tilted his head so that it rested back on his chair, and he was looking at the ceiling. "And I'm interested."

She wrestled with it for a moment, but it didn't take longer than that for Sakura to simply give in. Kakashi had already seen her most embarrassing moments, anyway, and if the man had anything, it was patience—in buckets. "It was the Mangekyou's fault. Sasuke. Because that's just typical of me."

Kakashi tactfully said nothing to this last point, but when he did speak, his voice was a fine razor, a low, deadly note. "Why in all fuck did Sasuke put you in a genjutsu?"

"Ages ago. When he used the Mangekyou on me after Kaguya. His theory, which sounds right to me, is that since he put me in a genjutsu when I was already funneling chakra from my frontal lobe, he fucked with my brain."

"Is that the medical term?"

"Ha ha, sensei."

Kakashi steepled his fingers. "Have you talked to the Godaime about this?"

"Not yet," she exhaled. "I want to have a full night's sleep in my own bed first."

"That's fair enough." Kakashi stood to walk over to her and leaned against his desk. "We can debrief more fully after that, too. With a drink, maybe. You might need one more than me."

"And people wonder why Tsunade-shishou was such a lush."

"Nobody wonders," Kakashi muttered, returning to his side of the desk. "Off with you, then. Sleep. You did well," he added perfunctorily, raising a finger like he was making a sarcastic comment in class. "Really well. I wasn't kidding about the Council. They will take note, as well they should."

Despite herself, there was a warm buzz of pride at the words; Sakura grinned. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."

He flapped a hand at her in dismissal, but she could see the smile underneath that mask.

Being behind the gates of the Nara compound, finally, back to the deer enclosure, back to his star-watching rock, back to the earth that he'd grown up with—there was no feeling like that, like setting down all your weight.

He moved through his parents' house silently, not quite able to wake his mother yet, not quite able to visit his father's memorial. This time had always been his; when he was a kid, he'd stay up all night and sleep all day, to the consternation of his mother, and as an Academy student he'd ignore homework to go outside and lay on his back and watch the night sky, and even once he was assigned his genin team he'd come back here after missions to stay awake throughout the night, prowling through his inheritance.

It was late, now; everyone asleep but him and a couple of owls. His flak jacket wasn't really doing it, warmth-wise—he hadn't changed out of his mission gear, and old sweat made his neck feel like it had two extra skins—but going inside felt like violating his own rules, and the sky was beautiful, every star pulsing in its rhythm.

The loss of Lee—that would be hard to deal with. Hyuuga and his teammate were sure to grieve, and—good gods—Gai would be a mess. Amazing what a year or so of protracted proto-war would do to desensitize the soul, though; he hadn't even flinched to see Lee's body covered in a cloak. It had felt more like an of course. Someone had to die on a mission like this. And of course he'd had a sick moment of relief to realize it hadn't been someone he was especially close to, although it was impossible that any one of Konoha Eleven hadn't known and been fond of Lee.

It hadn't been Sakura. No, when he saw her next she'd split out of the cave that had imprisoned her like a knife, dispatching her attackers with ferocity and skill—he hadn't quite believed it, after, when Neji had told him she'd been in a coma for days. How could someone move like that after coming out of a coma?

With an actionable split personality, apparently.

She'd cast a formidable figure coming out of that cavern, with thick black lines traversing her face and fists flying; she looked like she had during the war, no holds barred and no quarter given, dying and regenerating with the implacability of a god.

It had been very, very good to see her.

He was dozing now, and in his head these things merged: Sakura in a flak jacket, green chakra lighting her face from below, shouting encouragement—and then her cocooned in her red jacket, shuffling through the snow near the memorial stone—and then Asuma, with an arm around Chouji, guiding them back through the forest—

His moment of peace popped all at once, with a prick of discontent that had him sitting up from the star-watching rock with near violent speed, because that was Sakura's chakra coming towards him, towards the gates of the enclosure.

The moment of panic was quick and dissipated quickly; in its place was something that pulled at his chest, a taut line that felt somehow bright. He felt her out, trying to tell if she'd meant to come this way or if she was simply in passing. But yes, she was marching purposefully (if slowly) towards Nara land, towards the front door of all things, not even towards where their forest bordered the memorial. Was she coming to see him? Who else would she come to see, you idiot? It was a mystery she wasn't still at the hospital. It was incomprehensible for her to be here, after everything.

He got up, creaky with cold, and went to the door to meet her before she could knock or call out or whatever she was going to do, who knew, it was Sakura; but he was not prepared for what it felt like to open the gate and see her as he'd once imagined her, wrapped in her red coat with the frayed edges and standing in the middle of his personal doorway, looking for all the world like a person who needed a home, with that small smile and the wind-ruddy cheeks and her hands in her pockets. Her collar was turned up and her hair had been caught in the action; strands of it blew against her lips in the wind.

He was just staring at her. She had the good sense to speak and save his staring. "I'm not surprised you're up."

"I'm surprised you are," he responded dumbly. They were both speaking in whispers, as if frightened of waking ghosts. "Shouldn't you be on bedrest still? Post-coma?"

She spread her arms wide as if to demonstrate her good health. "I have no symptoms or injury. The poison is gone. I have been discharged so other, less fortunate souls can have my horrible little hospital bed."

He tried to grin and failed; warmth flew from his fingertips to his ears. "You admit that they're horrible." He took a cigarette from his pocket and pressed it in between his lips—anything to reduce the amount of talking he had to do—but his fingers were helpless with the lighter.

Sakura sighed. "My excellent bedside manner helps in most cases, but it hardly helps when I'm the one in the bed," she muttered, obstinately not helping with the lighter.

The image of this woman alone in a bed was not one he wanted to dwell on. Finally, a spark caught. Shikamaru inhaled deeply. "Why are you here? Er," he added quickly. "Troublesome. I meant, do you need something?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Since when do you do tact?"

"I had to learn it in my tenure as an assistant medic."

She giggled a little at that, and then simply shrugged. "I'm coming from Kakashi. I don't want to go home yet. If I'm bothering you, I'm happy to leave. You seem at peace."

Aside from all the struggling. He realized he'd been keeping her on the other side of the door; when he stepped back to let her through, though he'd done it dozens of times before when she'd come to collect medicines, it felt different, special, like letting in a spirit. Careful, careful.

He led her to the star-watching rock, and she eased herself onto it as if she knew exactly what it was for and had done so a million times before, but he stayed below, leaving it for her. Careful, careful. So much can disrupt moments like this, when you have something new at your door.

She put her head down on the stone and for the second time in months he was seized by the desire to touch her hair, the way it fanned in rivers over the rock; but this time to have her feel it, for her to know how stupid he felt whenever she was there to see it. He wasn't stupid enough to believe she'd forgotten about the kiss he'd been so idiotic as to plant on the side of her mouth. He also wasn't stupid enough to believe Hyuuga Neji, with the way he watched her, wasn't also thinking of Sakura being in his own personal doorway, and that she wasn't thinking of it, too, when she had the time and inclination; and he especially wasn't stupid enough to believe that this was any part or parcel of love, of the kind of feeling that kept her and her teammates together through a truly ludicrous series of fuck-ups and obstacles; no, he had become infatuated, he wanted to keep her close, but whatever it might be, it felt important, and if she also felt it to be important, and if she felt okay enough, finally, to come out of her head a little bit, well, then, maybe it was okay to—to try and—

She slid off the rock with grace and for a moment of almost relief, Shikamaru was sure Sakura was about to leave. But she stood close, still looking up, taking in the whole sky. His smoke curled around one of her ears on its journey upward, and suddenly it felt terribly rude and stupid to be smoking in front of her, so he extinguished the damn thing against the rock and inhaled fresh air instead, catching the scent of the hospital and her shampoo and just a hint of unfamiliar cologne, probably Naruto's.

She looked around at the sound of sizzling. "I don't mind it," she protested, and for a crazy moment he was sure she meant, I don't mind the taste.

Remembering how, one of his hands found the back of her neck. He felt one of her fingers curl into the pocket of his standard-issue pants, hooking through. He let them both rest there for an interminable moment, or series of moments, or something—he was looking at the way the collar of her jacket moved with her breath—and then her lips, cold, were on his jaw, testing the waters. Out of surprise more than anything, he lifted his head with the intention of looking at her, and out of curiosity more than anything, he stopped halfway through and kissed her mouth, warm.

She was a beautiful kisser: unhurried, sweet, her fingers drawing him closer. He felt slightly frantic in comparison, with his hand at her neck and the panic of earlier skittering in his brain. How the tables had turned, where she was the calm one and he was panicking. Her tongue was a weapon. He felt the heat of her through the jacket. Here, on his land, she had come—for this.

He broke away, enticed by her lower lip and wanting to feel it again. "Just—let me make sure. This isn't Inner Sakura?"

Sakura snorted, which was attractive only because of the situation in which it was happening. "Okay, now I'm leaving."

"No—don't." He had her wrists in his hands. So aggressive. Careful, careful. "Or do. Do what you want. It would be fine for you to stay."

She looked up at him: tired, so tired, but familiar, herself. And then there was a flash in her eyes, and a smirk. She looked roguish. This was a Sakura from before. He remembered this, the teasing. "For how long?"

He honestly wasn't expecting the heat accompanied those words. But it was there, curling up from his belly, and he felt warmer than he had in a while. Her fingers were in his hands, and he kissed one. The thumb.

"As long as you like."

She stayed until morning.

If someone asked—and Ino would, eventually, Sakura knew—she wouldn't have had a good answer.

Even now, waking up to an unfamiliar and empty bed in the fashion of mornings-after for millennia, she wondered if she had come to Shikamaru because she simply knew he would be there and would be happy to see her. Maybe she had become a glutton for comfort these past few months, melting into any arms that would take her. Maybe she was a horrible person for doing it. Who knew how deeply any affections really went? Who knew what she might be taking advantage of?

She hadn't even seen her parents since getting home, she realized.

But, no—there was no guilt. She felt pleasantly spent and normal and whole, a real person at last, with no violent waking during the night and no spells of misremembering and no flashes of sudden darkness. It was an amazing thing. Shikamaru's bed was set in somber shades of gray and navy, which was so incredibly typical; and he had been attentive and gentle, which made her flush to even think about—there was no guilt, no, but there was some degree of amazement at her boldness. What had she been thinking?

He'd moved her from the great rock slowly, with kisses to her neck and ear and a hand on hers, leading her towards the no-man's-land of his childhood home. He had led her through the labrythine hallways that marked, in her experience, most clan homes, and her heart had thundered like she was thirteen again when he'd led her finally to his bedroom, and slid the door shut, and begun to undress her with unnaturally warm fingers, placing his mouth anywhere they'd touched.

He'd taken special care with her jacket, she remembered, with a warm, sly smile on his face as he'd unzipped it, watching the zipper move, kissing her nose, her temple, sucking slightly on the lobe of her ear—

She was warm with remembrance when Shikamaru, in the here and now, chuckled. Her eyes flew open. Carelessly handsome, he stood near the door, his hair tousled and his eyes half-lidded. "Good morning."

She felt suddenly bashful; she was only wearing what appeared to be an old shirt of his, one of the mesh undershirts he used to wear as a genin. It did not, she noticed belatedly, cover much. She supplemented with his sheets. "You have an exceedingly comfortable bed."

"Now you understand why I sleep all the time." He sat next to her, but at a distance, as if she was an animal in danger of being spooked. For a moment, he didn't say anything—just stared at her hands holding the sheets around her shoulders, a curious smile playing on his face. Then he looked up, impudently, almost. "I didn't think you'd still be here when I came back."

"Where were you?"

"Feeding the deer. Saying hello to my mother."

"Does she know I'm here?"

"She knows everything, always. But she didn't say anything. She'll wait until you're gone for that."

"Mm." Sakura let her shoulders drop slightly; no need to feel defensive, after everything. "So were you expecting me to scurry out of here as soon as I got the chance?"

"I wouldn't blame you for scurrying." Shikamaru cleared his throat. "You've had a rough couple of months."

"Which you've done nothing but make better."

He looked at her with grateful surprise; maybe it'd been hastily spoken, but it was true. He hadn't even distracted her, she'd been so wrapped up in herself. Maybe that was a bad thing, that she'd just said it. Maybe he was far more into this than she'd expected. Maybe she had just ruined a friendship that seemed strong, going on stronger.

"So no scurrying."


"And no divulging awful details to Ino."

"No. Well. Not yet."

"And no regretting it."

"Do you?"

A moment of insecurity, of fear, in all of it—nothing could be completely carefree.

Shikamaru shook his head. "No. I'm glad you came by last night. I can ask questions about why, and if it'll happen again…those can come later."

Sakura nodded, feeling suddenly slightly giddy. "Of course."

"At a better time."

"Like in the middle of a surgery, I'm sure."

"I'll bring it up at your house. You can count how long it will take Naruto and Sasuke to disembowel me."

She couldn't quit smiling, somehow. It seemed he was having trouble, too.

"Well," she got out on a breath, trying to keep from idiotic laughter and turning away to sort through the piles by his bed—"well, I've got to find some—some pants, or—"

A finger in her peripheral vision. "I think they're over there."


She turned; Shikamaru kissed her back to the pillow.

It was getting warmer, Sasuke noted as he stepped outside the hospital, formally and cursorily discharged. In Kumo the winter fruits would be blooming. In Oto, the winter was a single gray cloud that cast a pall over the region for four months. In Suna, the days were growing longer and the desert plants beginning to show buds, hopeful for water. In Konoha, the snow would take a long time to melt, and then the riotous spring would come and send the whole town into a frenzy of Sakura colors—sakura colors. Pink and green and red and white and alive.

Sasuke knew Sakura would deny being hurt, but she was a fool: she had been hurt, and deeply. If he was right—and he couldn't imagine any way in which he might be wrong—she had been living with neurological trauma since he'd first used the Mangekyou against her. Split personalities and genjutsu and slow chakra storage did not mix well. He did not feel guilt for it, for the genjutsu; no, never guilt, only frustration that something he'd done (and had meant to do efficiently) had once again spiraled out of his control. It had been meant to simply shut her up, to keep her away from a fight that would have gotten all three of them in trouble. It had been, basically, for her protection.

She simply hadn't understood that at the time. If she'd only recognized his need to be—to destroy what had failed him—he would not have had to break her. As usual, she expected him to feel guilt. She expected him to at least apologize. But he had nothing to apologize for. She had been in his way. He could more easily have killed her.

Why didn't I kill her?

Well, more efficiently. Not necessarily 'easily.'

Those were the kinds of questions that really were not worth answering. She was alive, and if he was being completely honest with himself—a hard thing that got harder every damn day he spent in Konoha, with its head-in the-sand, the-world-is-beautiful Academy and its overly optimistic Kage—it was better that way. Haruno Sakura had changed in ways that he had not fully comprehended or calculated or expected, which was frustrating in its own right. He'd learned more about her in their hourlong training or sparring sessions than he'd ever known when they were genin. Things you like. Things you don't like. Dreams for the future. The fact that she had a slim knife tucked into her long boots. At the awful dinner he'd spent at her (loud, obnoxious) house, he'd seen her and Naruto curl together like people born to it, which he hadn't expected, either.

In the depths of his younger self, Sasuke supposed he vaguely recalled it, that fondness: the way Naruto nuzzled her like a great cat, and the way she pretended to barely tolerate it, smiling all the same, bringing a hand up to push him away and then to rub his neck. They had always been touchy as genin, punches thrown and embraces returned. He had always separated himself from that.

Idly, he wondered if Naruto and Sakura were at their shared home, sitting together, reading scrolls or drinking tea—the idiot Sai drawing something in a corner, the three of them an odd and disjointed family. He could picture them as he'd last seen them all together, in a line in the kitchen, Sakura directing traffic, Naruto getting in the way. Kakashi alone in Hokage Tower, Naruto's old apartment leased to a clean, competent chuunin, his family compound empty and moldering, the market regaining vendors, Ichiraku opening, genin chasing cats.

God, he hated this place, and he could never seem to leave it.

He heard a crunch behind him and was displeased to sense and see Hyuuga Neji coming from the hospital, wrapped in a traditional coat and accompanied by his simpering cousin, the one who loved Naruto but would never, ever have him: Hinata, the regal heir of the most regal clan. Probably at one time he would have been arranged to marry her, if not for everything.

She bowed slightly and politely, like she would to a family member. "Sasuke-san. I am glad you are home safe."

Neji, even, was regarding him with slightly less hostility than usual. "He and I had help in that regard," he told his cousin lightly. "Uchiha, I look forward to never being captured with you again."

Amusing. He'd never known Hyuuga could joke. Sakura's influence, most likely. But he had nothing to say to them, and the need to simply sit in solitude was becoming pressing. He left them to walk in the last dregs of snow.