Disclaimer: I'm very glad I don't own Naruto right now. Why yes, I would like salt on my salad! Thank you very much!
Story notes: As written, this story is Team 7 centric, but there are certainly scenes with the other teams. The only romantic pairing in this fic is NaruSaku and it will be prominent. This story will primarily focus on character development, relationship development (mostly between Team 7), and their futures. Also NaruSaku. Why you ask? Because NaruSaku is important. Characters may also become self-aware. And last, but not least, please note that chapter 699 and 700 do not exist in this story.
Updates will be slow, but I guarantee a finished product. Bear with me! Also big thank you to my Chief Beta Reader Extraordinaire, Irradiance!
This directly follows the ending of chapter 698.
Lifting the Dream by HawkofNavarre
Part I of III
"I started...to see Team 7 somewhat like my family..."
Somehow, Sakura could feel in her soul that it was over. The fighting had gone on for far too long and everything suddenly just seemed silent.
She supported Kakashi with her shoulders as they slowly made their way to the Valley of the End. She wasn't sure how long they had been walking, but it had definitely been a long time. All she could think about was whether or not they were okay. "If we fight again, we're both going to die," Sakura remembered Naruto's chilling words. And they had fought again. Once again, they'd left her behind and all she could do was hope they were okay.
She was sick of being left behind.
Her heart clenched painfully when she thought of Sasuke. She had tried so hard to get through to him, and in the end, all that resulted was him inflicting a cruel genjutsu on her. Kakashi had told her it was because Sasuke hadn't wanted her to follow them, and in truth, had she not been knocked out, she would have. She cared about him too much not to. She cared about Naruto too much not to.
In reality, Sakura wasn't really sure what else she should have expected. The only one who could ever get through to Sasuke was Naruto himself. Sasuke hadn't cared much for her throughout the entire war, but he worked so freely with Naruto. Maybe she deserved it, being just another person who gave up on Sasuke, but even she had a limit on giving second chances. She really had lost faith that he would find his way back to a lighter path. She had given up on him. Naruto hadn't.
Sakura's head snapped up as she heard Kakashi's voice, glancing forward for a second before she lost her breath entirely. There in the distance were Naruto and Sasuke lying side by side in a lot of blood.
"Go help them," Kakashi told her, pulling his arm away from her with a smile from underneath his mask. "I'll be fine. They probably need you more than I do right now."
She nodded. "Take it slowly, Kakashi-sensei," she commanded him in her best medic-nin tone, then rushed off to go meet her battered teammates.
Everything felt like it was getting heavier as she moved closer to them. She felt even worse when she realized that Naruto was missing half of his right arm and Sasuke his left. The tears started again, wondering how long they had been lying there for after what they'd done to each other. She hadn't been able to stop them. All she could ever do were the smallest things.
Sakura knelt down between them as soon as she reached the two boys, placing her hands over the stumps of their limbs and pumping chakra in to stop the bleeding. Even without a thorough examination, she could already tell from her chakra's entry point that both of them had several internal injuries and more than a few fractured bones. Both of them were also suffering from chakra exhaustion, but they'd be fine once she was done with them.
"S-Sakura-chan!" Naruto rasped out, beaming at her with one purple, swollen half-shut eye.
"Sa…kura…" Sasuke echoed her name and she almost flinched. After being so disrespected by him the last time she'd seen him, it was difficult to figure out how she should react to him.
She ignored both of them instead, concentrating on her task. Things were too complicated right now and the swirl of emotion within her couldn't be trusted not to come out of her mouth. She was already crying enough anyway.
"I'm…sorry…" he continued, and Sakura almost halted her chakra flow. Those…were certainly words she'd never thought she would hear come from Sasuke.
"Sorry for what?" Sakura asked heatedly, her words half strangled by her throat. If he was going to apologize to her after everything that had happened, she was going to make him do it properly. She wanted to hear him acknowledge all the horrible things he'd done since he left, acknowledge how much he had hurt her if he even cared enough to do it.
She bit her lip. That was as proper as it was going to get and she knew it. That idiot was lucky she had a soft spot for him. Still, it didn't excuse the fact that both he and Naruto were lying here in a pool of their own blood. Sakura knew they were going to live, which was a relief, but she was also majorly pissed off at both of them for running off without her in order to beat the shit out of each other. She understood that they shared a familial bond that nobody else could fully comprehend because of their pasts and their journeys, but she was the one dealing with the fallout. What if they'd both killed each other this time, like Naruto had suggested? Was she just supposed to be okay with everything now that they'd gotten everything out of their systems? If she hadn't loved Sasuke so much, hadn't gotten Naruto to make that promise, she wouldn't even be a part of this screwed up team relationship. She would've just been another bystander, watching these brothers fight until they were done.
Their arms had stopped bleeding, so Sakura moved her hands over their chests, fixing broken ribs before she mended any damage to their lungs. The rest of their internal organs came next, then fractures to the bones. By the time she was finished with them, only their more superficial wounds remained and she stood up from her spot.
Naruto stood up slowly, grinning at her. "Thanks, Sakura-chan."
Sasuke was quick to follow as he got to his feet. "Sakura…"
Sakura glanced at him sharply. Just because she had a soft spot for him didn't mean she wasn't still livid. He'd still done a hell of a lot of damage without any regard to her feelings or anyone else's.
It was good a thing she'd just healed him.
"Sasuke-kun," she said shortly in return, then pulled her arm back and threw all her pent up frustration, angst and anger into her fist against the side of his face.
There was no chakra enhancement in her strike, but the pure strength and emotion that she'd put into it still knocked him off balance, sending him stumbling back a few feet. Sasuke looked at her, wide-eyed and stunned, and suddenly Sakura felt a lot better. The best she had ever gotten out of him was a very minor sentiment. He'd always presented with annoyance or indifference when she was around, even if he'd thought of her as a friend. The fact that her fist had been able to elicit something different was extremely satisfying.
"That was for everything you put us through," Sakura stated, gesturing to an equally as shocked-looking Naruto. "But…I accept your apology. As long as you mean it, but don't think this means all is magically forgiven."
Sasuke nodded briefly as he cupped his now doubly bruised cheek, still dumbfounded.
Then she whirled on Naruto. "And you." She stalked up to his terrified form and jabbed him in the chest none too lightly with her finger. "Always recklessly doing what you want, and then smiling like an idiot when it's all over even when you're lying half-dead on the ground! We were supposed to save Sasuke-kun together, but no. When I get knocked out, all you do is take off on your own with him, get the crap beaten out of you—"
"Sakura-chan, we were both—"
"—and then get your arm blown up! Idiot! You're an idiot!" She paused in her tirade, throwing her hands up in exasperation and sighing loudly. Sakura shook her head, then pulled Naruto and the nearby Sasuke into a hug with either arm. "You're both idiots, but I'm glad you're okay…"
They stayed like that for a while without a sound. No matter how furious she was about being left behind by these two, or their tendency to settle everything with ninjutsu and fists, she loved them so much. Their limited time together as an actual team had been binding, and she could still feel it four years later—even if she wanted to plant both of these guys in the ground right about now.
"You two saved all of us. Thank you," Sakura spoke quietly.
"Ne, we couldn't have done it without you, Sakura-chan," Naruto replied as his hand settled on her back, "right, bastard?"
She thought she heard a grunt of response from Sasuke, but was interrupted by another hand on her shoulder. The three separated and she turned to look at her exhausted teacher who had finally made it down to them with a relieved expression.
"Not to mention you two wouldn't even be alive without Sakura's medical skills," Kakashi commented airily before smiling. "Now, why wasn't I included in that group hug?"
Naruto's loud whine of "You're late, Kakashi-sensei!" seemed to comfort everyone as a smile made its way up her face too. Even Sasuke had a hint of a smile at his lips. For the first time in years, they were standing around casually joking as if they were meeting up for a mission as genin again. Sakura remembered all those nights she had sit on her bed, staring at the photo of the four of them. She'd cried a lot when she caught so much as a glance at it the nights after Sasuke's departure, but it had eventually faded into a dull pain in her heart. She'd stared at that photo night after night, hoping her broken team would look like that photo again one day. Today, it did. The original Team 7 was together again.
By the time they got back to where most of the war veterans were, many people had more or less released themselves from the confines of their dream cocoons, or whatever they were. There were still quite a few trapped high in the branches of the tree, but those who were free were helping to get others out. Sasuke couldn't help but wonder if there were many who were disappointed about being woken. Certainly, everyone seemed to have known that they were fighting for freedom, but seeing your own perfect world could have a relatively strong impact on some. There was no doubt he would have rather lived in a dream world the night after Itachi slaughtered their clan. He was older now, and old enough to know that even if the world was rife with flaws, he'd rather work on the real one than pretend it didn't exist. It wasn't all bad. He had a family that accepted him for all his sins to prove that.
A feminine voice caught his attention, but the person was already rubbing up against his arm before he even had a chance to look. Not that he didn't know exactly who it was. He'd been around his own self-recruited team long enough to know who it was.
"Karin," he greeted her with a nod, more than used to her tendency to invade his personal space. The rest of Team 7 had pulled ahead of him to go help others in the alliance.
Jūgo and Suigetsu both approached behind her as she gave him a once over. "You're okay! But you're pretty low on chakra. And what happened to your face? And your arm?" she rambled worriedly as she offered him her arm to which he shook his head. Karin stepped a little further back, smiling. "You were the one who saved us, weren't you? You're the only one strong enough. I know it."
Sasuke shrugged. "Me and Naruto."
"That's cool an' all, but I'm outta here," Suigetsu cut in loudly, his arms crossed and a bored expression on his face. "Orochimaru left as soon as he woke up and nobody had enough energy to bother stopping 'im. He was the smart one. I wouldn't even still be here if it weren't for this dumb broad's loud demands."
Really, the feud between Suigetsu and Karin would never end, but the important part of this conversation was that Suigetsu was leaving. It didn't surprise Sasuke, considering how he had recruited Suigetsu in the first place. The guy didn't exactly like taking orders, and with neither Orochimaru or Sasuke giving him a reason to stay, he was free to do as he liked.
"We'll be enemies if we ever meet again," Sasuke stated.
Suigetsu grinned and a brief look of mutual understanding passed between the two. They had not become friends by any means, but there was a respect for each others' strength and the appreciation of being once teammates. "Heh. Wouldn't have it any other way."
He flicked a hand of farewell at Jūgo and Karin. "Well, see ya, psycho. Psycho bitch."
Karin punched his face one last time, only to get splattered with water before Suigetsu took off quickly. Sasuke was actually rather amused by how Team Taka had actually turned out. They were literally a bunch of Orochimaru's experimental subjects, but they had managed to somehow be a cohesive team when it came down to it.
"You're really just going to let him go?" Karin asked a little stubbornly.
Sasuke shifted to look at her. "I'm going back to Konoha." He drew shocked faces with that statement. "The number of people he's killed is more than his participation in the war will allow the village leaders to overlook."
"And yours isn't?" Jūgo questioned him. It was not an attack, but a serious question.
"I've tried doing things my way already," he answered calmly. This was something he had been thinking about ever since he and Naruto had been lying there on the ground together. He had gained power and killed Danzo by doing things his own way, but he hadn't been happy. Making himself some evil overlord wasn't going to stop the children who grew up without families from being consumed by hatred and turning out just as he had. They needed support, guidance, love. They needed someone like Naruto was to him. Dirty politics was one thing, but this was something else entirely. "If I want to change things, I need to do this right, and if that means dealing with the consequences of my actions, then that's what I'll do."
"Sasuke..." Karin started, looking at him in awe. "You've really matured..."
"Besides, Suigetsu's goals have nothing to do with me," Sasuke noted. He couldn't really say he was going to miss Suigetsu, but Team Taka had been a rather significant part in his life. So while he wouldn't miss Suigetsu, he wouldn't forget him either. It was probably the same the other way around. It wasn't as if the swordsman had ever liked following his lead. "We don't have anything to gain by working together anymore. We're better off this way.
"Anyway, you know what my plans are. Orochimaru's fled and I'm no longer head of Taka. You're free to do what you want," he told them.
"I go where you go. You're Kimimaro's legacy and I believe that now more than ever," Jūgo answered without a second thought.
"You know I'll follow you wherever you go, Sasuke," Karin announced, nose in the air as she looked at him haughtily despite the blush on her face. "You're hopeless. You'd be dead a hundred times over without me."
He nodded at her, acknowledging her words. A huge part of the reason he had recruited both Jūgo and Karin was because he had known that their particular set of skills would help him in his quest for revenge. Admittedly, he did feel quite a ways more amicable towards them than the bloodthirsty Suigetsu and might even be able to call them friends. Karin, especially, was right. She, along with Jūgo and Suigetsu, really had saved his life several times.
"B-but you only get one more chance with me, just so you know! So you'd better use it right!" the redhead declared indignantly, face still flushed.
A smirk made its way onto his mouth. Really, the women in his life cared about him far too much. He didn't get it. He still didn't get it. But for a day like this to come and still have them care about him, he felt lucky. Sasuke was an intelligent person and he knew that people rarely got second chances like these. It was time to appreciate that after all he had done, there were still people in his life who were willing to stand by his side and support him.
"Thanks, Karin," he said as the sides of his mouth upturned just a little. "Thanks, Jūgo."
"Of course you would be the one to pull through," was the Kazekage's greeting. The smile on his face was as exhausted as Naruto felt.
"Heh, well, it was nothing," Naruto responded as he scratched back of his head, grinning. Sakura had gone off to help anyone who needed healing and they'd lost Sasuke in the crowd even before that. Naruto himself was too tired and too deprived of chakra to help anyone recover at this point. Kurama was quiet within him, sleeping off his own chakra exhaustion.
"In any case, I'm relieved to see you're alright. Then again, after seeing you come back from the brink of death, I probably shouldn't have expected any different," Gaara told him as they both gazed out into the crowd of survivors.
"Haha, yeah... Thanks for keeping me alive, by the way," he said sheepishly. Naruto still had no idea how long he was technically dead for. His chat with the Sage of the Six Paths hadn't exactly been short, and there was a big blank space in for him in what had occurred between him "dying" and him waking up.
Gaara shook his head. "No, I couldn't do a thing to keep you alive. All I did was bring you to the people who could."
"Madara took Kurama's Yang portion from me," the sage replied thoughtfully. "How did I even survive...?"
"You have some very dedicated friends, Naruto," Gaara answered. "Sakura-san took it upon herself to manually keep your heart going and be the one to breathe for you."
The Kazekage chuckled. "She was pumping your heart with her hand and giving you mouth-to-mouth."
Even he wasn't thick enough to misunderstand that sentence. His jaw dropped and he just sort of stood there, staring at his friend in a mixture of disbelief and denial. Part of him (probably most of him, actually) wanted to scream out in celebration at even the thought of Sakura's lips touching his, although the gesture wasn't remotely romantic and the motive was completely pure. The other part of him was in just in absolute admiration for her skills, touched by how far she had been willing to go to save his life. Another part of him came to the sudden realization of how close to death he had been. That she had literally been holding his heart in her hands to keep him alive was a boggling thought.
"If she ever gets tired of Konoha, please let her know that Suna will fully welcome her expertise," Gaara half-joked as he leaned back on his gourd.
"What? No way! You can't have Sakura-chan!" Naruto denied him vehemently.
The Kazekage just laughed quietly as Naruto sulked. He knew he was probably taking Gaara's joke too seriously, but Sakura was a special person in his life and he couldn't help being a little overprotective of her. Besides, Team 7 had just been reunited. There were things that need to be said—confessions...that needed to be made.
"I assume the memorial will be held soon, once everyone has been gathered and any cases in need of dire medical attention are taken care of. As the Kazekage, I'll be busy. You'll go back to Konoha and I'll be back in Suna and we won't see each other for a while," Gaara told him, his demeanour becoming serious. "I just want to say...thank you."
Naruto blinked, feeling slightly awkward. First Sakura and now Gaara? Gratitude was nice, but he didn't want people to be thanking him all the time for saving their lives and freedom, especially from his best friends. "I was, uh, just doing what I could to make things right."
"No, Naruto," Gaara brushed off his reply, "thank you for being the person you are. You might not know it, but everyone you come across, everyone, is inspired by you. When you defeated me, you changed me for the better. You've changed a lot of other people too, and now you've saved everyone by just being you." He smiled, letting out a breath. "That I got to have a friend like you, Naruto...I feel fortunate."
Slowly, Naruto grinned. Gaara was the one saying he was grateful, but he had no idea how grateful Naruto felt having this particular fellow jinchuuriki as a friend. Sasuke was like a brother to him, but it was Gaara whose circumstances had been similar to his own. While he might have been part of the reason the Kazekage had changed, Gaara had evolved into an amazing leader on his own. He'd been such a spiteful person and instead became someone full of compassion who was respected by all the citizens of Suna. He was the inspirational one. "Hey, I'd be dead if it weren't for you, so I must be pretty lucky too."
Temari called out for her brother nearby, signalling the need for Suna's Kazekage just as Gaara had predicted. The youngest Sand Sibling strapped his gourd onto his back with a smile and a nod. "I expect to see you at the Kage Summit in a few years."
"You will," Naruto declared, nodding back with a determined smirk on his face. "Believe it."
Ino was in pain.
She'd been numb back when the alliance had gathered for the memorial, too relieved to be alive and awake from an illusion of what she thought she wanted. It had been short enough that she hadn't needed to think about what it all meant and she was glad for it.
It was probably meant to happen because she had kept it inside for the most part, but the second memorial in Konoha definitely hit her far worse than the first. As soon as she had heard her father's name mentioned amongst those who had fallen in the war, mentioned amongst those who were to be held in only the highest of honour, she felt her legs grow weak and she collapsed to the ground cradling herself. She was crying so hard she could barely breathe.
And then there was someone next to her, holding her while he cried too. And then there was another person behind them, holding both of them. Shikamaru. Chouji. Team 10 was here to share her pain and she was so grateful.
They stayed like that for a while, until her sobs had died down to soft shudders of erratic breathing. Shikamaru shared the same loss she did, but he seemed to be handling himself far better than she. He was calm while she shook and Chouji was their rock.
"Those two..." a masculine voice started, and Ino looked up through her tears to see Chouza standing next to them, "they were kind of assholes, leaving me behind like this. How rude."
"Dad..." Chouji said quietly. Ino already knew he wasn't going to say anything to her or any of them in an attempt of consolation, because he didn't know what this was like and frankly, it wouldn't matter what he said. There was no changing what happened or words that would heal them. She and Shikamaru had lost their fathers and Chouza had lost his best friends.
"Shikamaru, how's your mother holding up?" Chouza asked, his voice gruff and masking whatever emotions he was feeling right now.
Shikamaru leaned back on his hands, pulling a bit away from their little Team 10 heap on the ground. "She's breaking things."
Ino managed a small smile at this. Nara Yoshino had a rather volatile temper, and it only made sense that she would find solace by wrecking things in her grief.
Her face fell again, wrapping her arms around her knees as she brought them in against her chest. "She cried herself to sleep last night. When I left this morning, she'd finished making a dozen flower arrangements."
She lifted her head slowly, unsure of whether or not she wanted to see Chouza's reaction. There wasn't really enough time to work up some sort of courage to do it, but looking up had been a decision on its own and one that she had made fast enough that she hadn't needed to think about it. The expression on his face was pained, but unlike Shikamaru and herself, he did not cry. Ino wondered if he pitied them, the suffering families that his best friends had left behind.
"I...see..." Chouza ground out. He swallowed and let out a breath, and Ino could only assume that the tension he was feeling was as bad as her own. "You make sure you tell them...the Akimichi clan will do anything possible to support them. Our family...will do anything we can."
Shikamaru gave the barest of nods, but Ino could only stare at the ground. The Akimichi clan leader bent down next to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Ino, and you too, Shikamaru, I want to let you both know... I may not be as wise as Shikaku, or as understanding and compassionate as Inoichi, but I am a father. If there's anything you need, you can come to me."
Ino turned and launched herself at Chouza, sobbing and hugging him tightly. There were no words that could express how she was feeling right now. He had given them the most touching gesture anyone could possibly offer and although that did nothing to ease her anguish, knowing there was someone who was willing to give her the fatherly support Inoichi once had was heart-warming. She had known Chouza for as long as she had known Chouji when he'd introduced them all those years ago and he had always been good to her.
Eventually, she allowed Chouza to pull away and Shikamaru let out a very hoarse-sounding "thank you" as Chouji put his arm around his best friend's shoulder.
"I'm going to stop by to see your mothers now. You two...try not to stay out too late, alright?" Chouza said gruffly.
Ino knew well enough that this was more than a suggestion. They were seventeen and battle-hardened enough to be considered adults even at such a young age, and despite his offer to come to him for any fatherly advice, there was only so much he could do for them. It was an important recommendation and she could read between the lines. Please don't leave your mother alone.
"We won't," Shikamaru responded for them, the genius clearly quicker at deciphering the message than she was.
He waved a farewell and a minute later, the last member of the former InoShikaChou trio was only a speck in the distance. Ino was still on the ground, standing reluctantly as she looked off at the rows and rows of headstones behind the new memorial stone. Not all the bodies had been recovered from the war and all were given a peaceful burial at the site of the battle, but having a place for people in the village to go to seemed to be comforting for anyone who had lost a family member in the war.
"Do you...want to go visit them?" she asked her two teammates as she clutched her arm. She wanted to go stand by her father's headstone, but didn't want to go alone or admit that out loud. Shikamaru and Chouji both seemed to understand and gave a her a nod to the affirmative.
Finding them had taken longer than expected. There were so many people who had died and as they walked down rows upon rows in search of a couple names, the difficulty seemed like a grim reminder of everything that had been lost. After some time, they found that the headstones had been placed side by side and Ino was glad that her father was being honoured beside one of his best friends.
Shikamaru stood in front of his father's headstone while Ino stood in front of her own, Chouji standing back shortly between them. In the silence, she reflected back on the last words her father had said to her during the war. He'd told her that he was proud of her, and in truth, she was also proud of herself. To be able to do a technique that even her own amazing father had taken years longer to achieve made her feel accomplished, and it was even better that Inoichi would've been more than ecstatic. It was what he had said afterwards that was bothering her.
"Don't lose to Sakura in love." Those had been his words, and while Ino wasn't immature enough to think that the two of them were still competing over Sasuke, what she had been dreaming of when she was stuck in the Infinite Tsukuyomi was a source of shame for her. Had she really been wishing for love so much that a happy life to her was two boys she liked fighting over her? How could she be dreaming about such a thing, even if her dad had been with her?
It seemed so ridiculous and she was continually asking herself if she had actually dreamt that. Yes, she did want to fall in love with someone who loved her in return, and yes, she did enjoy attention, especially from attractive men—even better if she was kind of in love with one of them—but that wasn't just who she was. She was stronger than that. She was better than that, but now that she was thinking about it, she really hadn't found a dream since her childhood. Because of her friends and comrades, she had always resolved to become a stronger kunoichi, but when had she stopped dreaming about love?
When it came down to it, she really hadn't. The world had been calm for a bit and then a complete mess for the next two years. When things were quiet, Ino had been content to make wishes on love, but in between the calm and the fighting, there hadn't been time for her to think about what she really wanted for herself out of life. Love was one thing, definitely, but it wasn't everything.
Quietly, Ino resolved to find a new goal in life. Having love solely on the mind was something her twelve-year-old self would've done. She wasn't a kid anymore. She wanted something big for herself that had nothing to do with dating and marriage.
"It's a nice day. Should we go cloud watching?" Ino suggested abruptly, turning her head to look at her trio counterparts.
"You want to go cloud watching?" Chouji asked in disbelief with the nearby Shikamaru echoing similar sentiments.
"I could use some time to think," she explained coolly, going back to the former fire she was so used to emitting. She'd always be mourning her daddy, but right now, she was going on the premise that an upbeat attitude would help her feel better faster. "We can go for barbeque after."
At the mention of barbeque, Chouji looked at Shikamaru with such pleading eyes that it would unsettle anyone who didn't know the large shinobi.
"Yeah, I guess we could do that," Shikamaru sighed, though the smile on his face betrayed the tone of his voice.
As they walked off, Ino briefly smirked at the sky. She was going to make her dad so proud that he'd piss off Shikaku with all his bragging of her. That was the kind of woman she was going to be.
So...a grave. A headstone. A body being eaten by worms.
"What the hell, Neji..." Tenten muttered, kicking the grass softly with her foot. She wasn't supposed to be standing here in front of her friend's grave. She had always been stricken by her teammate's raw talent and strength, but equally admirable was how hard he worked for everything. And it had ended like this. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
Sometimes when she thought about it, she was so sad she just wanted to collapse on the ground and cry the way Ino had done earlier in front of everyone. Others, she was just angry that Neji had given his life for the future of others. This was one of those times.
It was a stupid thing to be angry over. After all, how could she justify feeling angry when Neji had done what he needed to save his cousin and a person everyone believed could save the world? It was a downright selfish feeling, but she was furious that her teammate was just a body in the ground when he, out of pretty much anyone else, had deserved more than this. Even if it had been his choice, couldn't he have done something else? He was—he'd been—one of the strongest people she knew. Surely whipping out Hakkeshou Kaiten would've been simple enough.
"Tenten..." Lee started, trailing off. It wasn't like him to speak so reluctantly, but she could see from her periphery the concern in his eyes, and that he wasn't pressing any further because he knew she was upset.
"We shouldn't even be here," she told him as she glared at the headstone. This one was pretty plain, reading "In honour of Hyuuga Neji, friend and hero". It didn't do justice to the man Neji had been.
"I understand how you feel, Tenten," the taijutsu specialist replied as he placed a hand on her shoulder. "My greatest rival... This feeling is more than I can bear."
Her eyes burned, trying to force the tears away. Stupid Neji. How could he just leave them like that? He'd done it to save his cousin, his talentless, privileged main Hyuuga family cousin who hadn't been able to say hello to her without stuttering for three years. The girl who at first glance only made you think "white eyes" and "big bo—
In a flash, a broken-looking Hyuuga Hinata was standing behind her with Uzumaki Naruto and Tenten felt horrible for having such vicious thoughts. It wasn't right to blame Hinata for Neji's death. It wasn't the heiress' fault that she was born into the main family, nor that she was shy or not the genius Neji had been. It wasn't right to blame her, but Tenten knew she was looking for somebody to blame. There was nobody to blame. Neji had chosen this and it was way too difficult to accept.
"H-hey," Tenten said tightly to the both of them. She really hoped they didn't want to talk. Even if seeing Hinata had managed to quell most of her anger, she wasn't in the mood for socializing today, especially not with the people her teammate had sacrificed himself for.
"Hinata-san," Lee greeted her solemnly, "the sun shines today, but it feels like such a gray day, doesn't it?"
There was silence and Tenten noted that Naruto hadn't said a word the entire time. She turned to look at him and found that he was the one struggling with Neji's death the most openly right now. She recalled the way he'd felt during the war, how hopeless he'd been. Everyone had been depending on him and he hadn't been able to protect himself or his friend. Being here by his grave must have brought all those feelings rushing back. He was quiet, but the anguish on his face and the tears streaming down his cheeks portrayed exactly how she felt inside right now.
Tenten didn't know how she could've ever been angry at him.
Everyone was hurting so much. What kind of words could be said that would bring some kind of consolation to any of them? Nothing was going to make her feel any better now. This was so pathetic. She couldn't even respect the decision Neji had made because she was still upset that he had made it in the first place.
"Naruto-kun, I weep for my friend's burning youth as you do," Lee spoke quietly, his voice cracking and Tenten knew that he had started crying again.
"I... I..." Naruto stuttered as he took in shaky breaths. "Damn it!"
He turned and ran so fast that she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Apparently, saying anything at all was still the wrong thing to say. She almost envied him for running away. Although Naruto hadn't been Neji's teammate, they'd shared a bond that was permanent and deep. He had changed Neji for the better. But he had also brought his team back together, and now hers was the one that was broken. It was broken and unfixable. He could run away from this. She couldn't.
"N-Naruto-kun...!" Hinata called after him in concern. In hasty movements, she bowed quickly to her cousin's headstone, then to Tenten and Lee before sprinting off after Naruto.
"My, my, Neji sure is popular."
Tenten's eyes popped open abruptly. That voice...
She whirled and dropped into a bow herself as Lee followed suit. "Hokage-sama!"
Her idol stood in front of Neji's grave with a sad smile on her face, as beautiful and radiant as ever. If anyone looked as youthful as Lee and Gai-sensei claimed they were all the time, it was Senju Tsunade. It didn't matter that the smoothness of her skin and the brightness of her face weren't real; the skill behind maintaining something like that awed Tenten enough. To her, this was the most powerful woman in the world.
"I hate to play favourites, but he was definitely one of my favourite jounin," Tsunade admitted, letting out a resigned sigh. "It's tough, isn't it? Coming home and knowing he won't be with you."
Tenten swallowed, willing herself to push back the rush of emotion that was threatening to spill out of her at any moment. She didn't know how much crying the world could take in one day, but she was tired of it. There were so many people crying everywhere around her, people mourning for the death of loved ones who hadn't seen it coming or were terrified at their deaths. Her teammate had died with a smile on his face and all she could feel was rage and sorrow that Neji had chosen to leave them. She cared about how she felt right now, not how he had felt back then. It was so selfish, but there was no other way she could feel about it in this moment.
"One of my teammates defected a long time ago, and ended up facilitating the death of our teacher. The other was killed by Pein," the Godaime told them wistfully. "My team...has been broken for a long time. Back then, I was so focused on how worthless I felt that I was the one who ended up fracturing it further. It's something I can't help but regret." She turned to Tenten with eyes full of empathy. "It's okay to feel angry, and to feel anything else you're feeling right now."
"H-how did you...?" the weapons specialist choked out.
Tsunade smiled. "It's written all over your face. You don't hide as well as you think you do," she answered simply. "But don't let it break your team apart. It might seem easier to run away, but in the end, it's not worth everything you lose doing it. Time...is something I took for granted when it came to more than a few people."
"You two take care of each other," the Hokage advised them airily, nodding at both "Neji" and Lee before she walked off as Lee scrambled to bow again, presumably to pay respects to someone else.
Tenten stared, awed at the fact that Tsunade had told her something so personal. That it was such wise advice when she couldn't properly deal with her emotions made her admire the female Sannin even more. This was the woman she aspired to be like. She...she had a long way to go...
"Let's go see Gai-sensei," she suggested softly. Sure, there was still anger stirring within her, but Neji wasn't really here anymore, and she had another teammate here that she cared for just as much. She couldn't go back in time and change things, perhaps one day she would be able to peacefully accept his decision and the way things turned out, but right now, she had to cherish the things she had.
Lee grinned and put on his best nice-guy pose. "Yes, Tenten, let's go!"
He'd had to get out of there, and that was why he'd run. Tenten had looked so angry, maybe at him, maybe at Neji—he didn't know. Lee had looked so lost and despondent, the way Naruto had felt when Sasuke had left them. And Hinata, who had specifically asked him to come to visit Neji's grave with her had such a powerful aura of melancholy that Naruto thought he was going to suffocate from everything he was feeling.
He wanted to keep running until his legs gave out. The adrenaline from running without chakra could make him forget just a little the unfairness of it all. All Neji had wanted was freedom, and though he had smiled upon his death, though the seal that caged him faded with his last breaths, though he had chosen the fate that his actions would bring him, Naruto simply couldn't see how this could really be freedom. He had been tethered to a seal that could control him his last moments, and even if Hiashi didn't really seem like a bad guy, it didn't change what the branch families of the Hyuuga saw in that seal.
And although that was terrible and something that needed to be changed, the thing that Naruto couldn't deal with was the lie his own words had been.
The thought of it sickened him and his feet pounded against the ground even harder. It wasn't his fault, but he was still a liar. The world was safe, but he was a liar. Sasuke came home, but he was a liar. Liar, liar, lia—
He crashed into someone hard, and they both went tumbling to the ground. He rubbed his head as he sat up, looking around worriedly and sincerely hoping he hadn't just seriously injured someone in his recklessness.
To his surprise, it was someone who was more likely to inflict injury upon him for being so reckless. "Ack! Sakura-chan! S-sorry, I didn't see you there!"
"Jeez, Naruto! Watch where you're going!" Sakura hissed, massaging her shoulder, which he assumed was the area he'd collided with. Her expression changed immediately when she set her eyes on him and the tone of her voice softened. "Hey, what's going on?"
"I'm fine," he replied as he wiped his face on his sleeve before shooting her a forced grin. Man, what he must look like with bloodshot eyes and snot coming out of his nose.
His close friend looked hurt at his denial. She looked at the ground with interest. "You know, I can see right through that smile. If you don't want to tell me what this is about, that's fine, but at least tell me the truth."
The words stung him with guilt. He never wanted to burden Sakura with his problems, so his first reaction was to deny that anything was wrong, but she was also the same person he had spent so much time with over the last two years. She knew him better than anyone and he could see that in trying to keep his own problems away from her, he was only hurting her. He trusted her implicitly, and after all this time, he knew he shouldn't push her away.
"Hinata asked me to visit Neji's grave with her, but I..." He swallowed, struggling to continue. "I just couldn't deal with it."
"Neji meant a lot to you. It's normal for you to need some time," Sakura consoled him as she moved closer, hand on his arm.
"No, it's not that he's gone. It's not," he said, shaking his head and playing with the grass beneath him. "I just... I keep thinking back to when we fought during the chuunin exams."
She glanced at him in confusion. "You changed him."
Naruto bit his lip and shook his head more vigorously this time. "That's why this is wrong. Everything I said back then to him was a lie." He got to his feet with a pained sigh. "Sakura-chan, Sasuke and I never would've been able to defeat Kaguya if we didn't inherit the chakra of the old man's sons. We wouldn't even be alive because we wouldn't have met the old man and he wouldn't have brought us back. That—that doing all that was my destiny. It's like I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing without even knowing! Neji was right! I never changed fate because I inherited Asura's will from the start and I changed his mind with a lie!"
Sakura rose next to him, grasping both his arms as she spoke firmly, "Alright, I don't understand everything that happened with the Sage perfectly, but since when has Uzumaki Naruto believed in fate?"
He didn't answer. He didn't believe in fate. But right now, it sure felt every decision and every action he had made up to this point wasn't really his own, like the strength he had come to possess had been handed to him instead of earned. "I don't, but—"
"No," his teammate denied sharply, "there is no 'but'. Do you really think that just because you inherited someone else's chakra that it changes who you are? Who you were supposed to be?" Her eyes were filled with so much conviction that he couldn't look away. She believed so fiercely in what she was saying that it almost made him believe it too.
"You chose to be someone who smiled instead of holding grudges. You chose to work hard to become stronger. You chose to put your life on the line for everyone else. And you," Sakura paused, glaring at him, "beat Neji."
He trembled against her grip. "How do you know, Sakura-chan?"
She smiled reassuringly. "Because I know you. If you hadn't worked as hard as you did or had been as determined as you were, then and now, none of us would be standing here today. You never followed some sort of fate, Naruto. You've always been Konoha's number one unpredictable ninja."
Naruto managed to return her smile. "Thanks, Sakura-chan."
"Now that I think about it, being unpredictable is kind of predictable for you, you know?" she asked thoughtfully, nudging him in the side playfully.
"Hey! I thought you were cheering me up," he pouted as he crossed his arms to sulk, but he couldn't fully conceal the twitch at the edge of his lips.
"Don't even bother trying to look angry, Naruto. It isn't working at all."
He laughed a little before his expression fell again. "Really, Sakura-chan, thanks. I thought I'd already dealt with this, but as soon as I was standing there, I..."
"It happened in the middle of a war, Naruto," Sakura said, brushing it off. "You didn't get a chance to grieve and neither did anyone else." She sighed, rocking back on her heels. "He was my friend too, you know. It's going to take time for everyone to get used to the fact that he's gone."
"I'm going to make sure no other Hyuuga ever has to feel the same way he did," Naruto proclaimed in determination as he wiped away his tears.
"When you're Hokage?" she asked with a subtle smirk.
"When I'm Hokage," he agreed. Feeling a little lighter, he grinned back at her. "Speaking of that, Tsunade-baachan says they're letting Sasuke out tonight."
"Really? That's quicker than I expected. I've been so busy at the hospital lately that I've barely seen Tsunade-shishou. You know more than I do," she replied.
She did look tired, Naruto noted. Though there were dark circles under her eyes, but the fire in her hadn't died down at all. He hadn't seen Sakura much either, considering he had been helping Tsunade and (annoyingly) filling out reports for what had happened during the war. He almost wished his prosthetic hadn't been prepared so fast just so he could avoid it. Still, every once in a while, he would sneak away from what he was supposed to be doing with a shadow clone to peek in on her at the hospital, just to see how she was doing, but that was the extent of his contact with her. Hell, he'd even seen Sasuke more often since he'd been allowed to visit him in the prison.
He was happy to be talking with her right now. Only she was able to handle his moods as easily as she did. And the way she looked under the sunlight...she was so beautiful...
He jumped as she cut into his stupor. "Huh?"
"You were talking about Sasuke-kun?" Sakura reminded him, raising an eyebrow.
He blushed, hoping she wouldn't figure out what had distracted him. "Right. He-he's staying at my place until he can find his own since the Uchiha compound was destroyed by Pein. And he's bringing the people from the team he made—Team Bird or whatever."
"Taka," Sakura corrected him without missing a beat, though she shot him a sharp look, "and they're staying with you?"
"Yeah, since Sasuke said they needed a place to stay too."
"Then I'm staying too," she stated simply.
Naruto stared at her. "Eh?"
"I am staying with you," Sakura repeated in a tone that left no room for argument. "Are you forgetting that you're going to be housing people who were fugitives until just a few days ago?"
The answer was yes. He hadn't even thought about Sasuke or any of his friends as being missing-nin. His brain simply didn't work that way. Sasuke was his brother, and despite any wrongdoings in his past (and Naruto accepted that there were a hell of a lot of those), he had been a victim of a circumstance he had been thrust into, and they connected through that. They hadn't seen eye to eye for a long time, but the trust had never truly faded. Naruto had kept his faith in Sasuke alive and never let it waver, through any situation. Now that they were on the same page, the trust was only stronger. He trusted Sasuke, and by extension, he trusted Sasuke's friends.
"B-but it's Sasuke," was the only thing he could say to Sakura.
She looked off forlornly. "You trust him. I can't," she replied. The expression of remorse on her face sent a pang through his own chest when he was reminded of all the times Sakura had cried over Sasuke. Her mistrust of him only meant that pain was still there. "At least, not yet."
She gave him the same broken smile he'd given her earlier. "I'm sorry, Naruto. After everything you did to bring him back too..."
He swallowed thickly. "No, you...you can't help how you feel about Sasuke..."
"No matter how I feel, I'm glad he's home," Sakura assured him. "I...never thanked you for keeping your promise. So..." She glanced up at him, her eyes meeting his and he could feel his heart speed up. "...thank you, not just for keeping your promise, but for everything else too. I never knew that day, when Iruka-sensei called our names, how lucky I was to be your teammate."
Her eyes were one thing. Her words were another. Regardless, both were piercing him to the very core and he didn't know how to react. Sakura didn't say things like this to him very often, but she was baring her heart to him right now. It was funny how close they could be, how they could talk about anything to each other besides their feelings. He'd always continued to ask her out on dates and sometimes she would casually accept to go along as friends, but "as friends" was different from how he really felt. He loved being friends with her, but he was also in love with her and he couldn't help the warmth she made him feel.
It was the same way she was making him feel now.
He could tell her now, right? Naruto had resolved not to tell her how he felt unless he could fulfill his promise, because Sakura deserved someone who could keep his promises. He finally had, and even if she still loved Sasuke, even if she was disgusted by his feelings for her, and even if she rejected him so horribly that it crippled him for life, he had to tell her how he felt. She had been one of his dreams since he had first laid eyes upon her and he wouldn't give up on making it come true until he heard it straight from her mouth that it was never going to happen.
He internally shoved aside the blush on his face and started determinedly, his eyes burning into hers and his head lowering. "Sakura-chan, I—"
How could she have lost him so quickly? Hinata knew that Naruto was by far a better ninja than she was, but she didn't think that turning her back to give Neji one last bow would lead her to a half an hour search for him. He had been so upset and had disappeared almost instantly the moment he started running.
Guilt welled up within her. It was her fault for asking him to visit Neji with her. He'd seemed solemn when she had asked, but she certainly hadn't known that he was so unready to confront the death of her cousin. She wouldn't have asked him at all if she knew how much grief it would cause him, and she wouldn't have wanted her asking him to have put any pressure on him. She really hoped it hadn't.
She used her Byakugan to look for him, but it was difficult to determine exactly where he was because there were so many shinobi in the areas she was searching. She could only see chakra patterns, not sense them, and as big as Naruto's chakra was, there were a lot of shinobi around to sort through. Besides that, it was the first time she had used her clan technique in a week and her eyes still needed rest. She had used them too much during the war and the recovery was definitely longer than usual.
The moment she found him, she took off to see if he was okay. The last thing she wanted was for Naruto to be hurt, especially because of something she had done.
However, when she reached him, she stopped short, her heart beating painfully.
Naruto was standing close—too close—to his female teammate, his face flushed and his eyes deep with emotion. Sakura was drawn in to them, waiting...for something.
Hinata knew she should not be there. Something was happening between them and she knew she shouldn't be there to witness any of it. She was still far enough away that they hadn't noticed her, although some of that was probably attributed to the intimate situation they were in right now, but the important thing was that she could leave at this very moment. They would never even know she was here.
But before she could stop herself, her feet were moving forward and her mouth was opening at the same time Naruto's was.
Why? Why? Hinata asked herself, even as they directed their attention to her. She shouldn't have interrupted whatever was occurring between them and she knew that. She had sought him out to comfort him, but he seemed to have already found consolation in his teammate. She—she hadn't meant to...
"I have a shift at the hospital to get to. I'll see you later," Sakura said to Naruto as she stepped away from him, waving shortly to Hinata as she departed. She even sent Hinata a very encouraging look as their eyes met. What was that supposed to mean...?
Naruto approached her with a grin. His eyes were still a bit red, so she could tell that he had only stopped crying recently. Of course, in that 30 minute timeframe, she had no idea what had happened with him and Sakura. All she knew was that Sakura cared for Naruto a great deal and when they were together, he was in good hands...hands that had been the ones to help and heal him for the last five years.
"Hinata... Sorry I ran off earlier," he apologized, scratching his head sheepishly.
"It-it's fine," she replied, her stutter more a result of her discomfort for putting herself in this situation in the first place than of her original lack of confidence. "I was just worried..."
"I didn't mean to worry you! Really, I'm okay," Naruto assured her with a wide smile. Chuckling softly, he folded his arms behind his head. "I guess I freaked out a little, but Sakura-chan put me back in place."
His words resonated in her mind. It was Sakura who had helped him. It was Sakura who was always helping him. Even though she had finally worked up the courage to ask him to accompany her somewhere, and even though she had gone after him to make sure he was okay, to make sure she could be there if he was not, it was still Sakura who had done these things for him. Hinata had gotten through to him during the war, but it was Sakura who had communicated his feelings to the rest of the alliance. Hinata had tried to run to his side when he was dying, but it was Sakura who was already there, keeping him alive.
This wasn't about making sure Naruto was okay anymore. He was fine because Sakura had made sure of that. During the war, she had promised herself that she would stop chasing him. She didn't want to chase him; she wanted to be by his side as his lover, and if not, then his comrade. But she was by his side as a comrade. Why else would he have accepted her invitation to come with her to visit Neji if she wasn't? And yet somehow, she was still in the chase. She was still reaching for the man that had always been her inspiration. She wanted him to love her and that had not changed in several years. If there was a chance, Hinata had to try.
"Naruto-kun," Hinata breathed. Her heart was beating so loudly it was pounding in her ears. This was the make or break moment. She had built up the courage to do this once before. Now, the brave person she had always aspired to become would be the one to make him acknowledge her feelings. "I...would worry anyway. I would worry because...I love you."
His eyes grew wide as he stared at her and Hinata could feel her chest constricting. He seemed more surprised than unaware because his face grew remorseful in an instant. So...he did remember. He remembered, but he hadn't said anything.
"I know," he told her, and Hinata wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a good or bad response. She didn't know a lot about romance—Ino was really the one a girl should go to for advice—but "I know" didn't really give anything back to her. Was he happy? Did he feel anywhere even close to the same for her? With the few conversations they'd had over their life, she wasn't expecting any kind of "I love you" right out the door, but she really wanted something.
"Naruto-kun...?" Hinata urged him to continue.
"I know," he repeated a little more solidly this time. "Things have been one after another recently and I never said anything. No matter how crazy things got, I still should've talked to you. I'm really sorry I didn't."
She drew in the smallest breath of air in anticipation of what he was going to say next. She could tell that Naruto felt bad for not acknowledging her confession earlier, but other than that, his face gave away nothing except determination. This was it. He was going to finally going to give her an answer, positive or negative. No matter what he chose, she could live with it.
"Honestly, when I was a kid, there was a part of me that thought I'd never hear anyone say those words to me. For anyone to know that there's a person out there who loves them, I think everyone should have that," he told her gently, a soft smile on his face. "I'm really happy, Hinata, but...I can't return your feelings."
The world stood still for a moment. "I can't return your feelings." She had heard it. Those were the words that came from his mouth, and just like that, a dream that had grown within her since she was scarcely old enough to know what love was began to fall apart in front of her. She wasn't sure exactly what she had truly been expecting, but the hope that the answer would be different was undeniable. Instead of the relief she'd been desperately wanting to feel, the tightness in her chest grew. She had held the hand of Uzumaki Naruto, but she would never kiss him. She would never be his girlfriend or his wife, and she would never be the one who came first in his heart.
Even so, Hinata couldn't let go. Not...not yet.
She was wrong. To say what she wanted to with a smile—that was the person she had aspired to become. She willed the burning in her eyes away and let the corners of her lips curl naturally. She couldn't force it; someone like Naruto would be able to tell in an instant, so she remembered that he was doing what was best for himself. He had to do this in his pursuit for happiness, and as someone who loved him, that was all she could want for him.
"I...I understand, Naruto-kun. But please know that watching you inspired me to be strong. You will always be important to me," Hinata told him, proud that she had said it without a hitch in her voice or a stutter in her sentence. She held eye-contact. She kept herself together. She was strong. "I hope that we can always be friends."
Naruto looked appalled at the assertion that they might not be friends. "Of course we'll always be friends!"
Her smile widened. "I'm glad."
She bowed to him, telling him that she would be going back to see Neji one more time for today. The expression on his face was sympathetic, but he didn't say anything to bring up what had just happened again. He simply nodded and thanked her without a reason. Still, she could hear the unspoken words that were there. "Thank you...for loving me."
And so Hinata was the one who walked away from him, not stopping until she was certain she was far enough away from everyone that she could be alone with her thoughts. Her legs automatically carried her to the Twelfth Training Ground where she, Kiba and Shino had first come together as a real team. She had always drawn inspiration from Naruto, but her team had been the first people to endow her with any sort of confidence. This was a place of change. It was a place of growth.
It was the place where she could finally let go.
A breath shuttered through her as she smiled. Hinata was so proud of herself. She had said what she needed to Naruto, even in the face of rejection. She had been strong. She had become the person she wanted to be, but even strength ran out after a while. There was no need to hold it together right now. She could let all of it go and begin to heal, so she did.
Hinata sank to the ground and cried.
Sakura walked along the street with her overnight bag, heading towards Naruto's apartment. Her parents didn't mind her staying the night at Naruto's place—in fact, her dad especially seemed to encourage it (figures, considering Naruto was the only person in all of Konoha who genuinely found her dad's horrible jokes funny)—but they didn't seem too thrilled that Sasuke was going to be there too. It made her feel bad enough that she had to leave out that Sasuke's other teammates were going to be there too. She didn't want her parents to worry more than they already were. If they caught wind that Naruto was letting people straight out of prison stay in his house, they'd probably have a heart attack.
The logical part of her already knew these people were dangerous, and by herself, she didn't stand a chance of protecting Naruto against them, but she still had to be there. She had to see what they were like herself, see if they were worth her trust, and...see if she could trust Sasuke again. The terms of their release from prison were unclear, but if Tsunade found them fit to be free, then there had to be a good reason. Besides, the three of them seemed to be cooperating for now. Sakura wasn't stupid enough to think Sasuke would just sit in prison for a week unless he was really trying to change. Still, one week of following Konoha's laws didn't prove much to her, but at least it was a start. She didn't want to mistrust Sasuke anymore. She had never been able to truly understand him and he didn't seem to want to let her, but regardless of everything he'd done, she still considered him a friend.
Now Karin and Jūgo, Sakura didn't know much about. She knew the basics of their skills from Konoha's Bingo Book, but on a personal level, she didn't understand much of anything about them. The fact that they had remained with Sasuke when he knew he would inevitably be sentenced to prison for at least some time meant that they were astoundingly loyal to him. None of them were from the same village or anything, but somehow, they had created a bond that was worth following Sasuke for. She'd have to be amicable and cautious at the same time. She couldn't get along with Sasuke if she couldn't get along with his new friends too. This whole thing would be easier if she were more like Naruto. He'd accepted Karin and Jūgo into his home without a second thought.
Naruto... The last time she'd seen him was earlier today when Hinata had shown up. Sakura had done her best not to show it, but the whole situation had been a bit awkward. She could deny it until her last breath if she wanted to, but she knew the air around her and Naruto had been thick with emotion. She didn't dare think about what kind. She had sent the most supportive smile she possibly could at Hinata, knowing how in love the Hyuuga was with Naruto. Still, the thought of what could have occurred after she left made her clench her fists.
I shouldn't be so possessive of him just because he's my teammate, Sakura thought to herself. The dishonest confession she'd given him had shown her that. She couldn't decide what was best for him. Hinata was a good girl. Naruto could decide his own feelings for her. Besides that, she wasn't even sure what she was hoping would happen between the two, and that was another thing she was really trying not to think about.
As she arrived at the door of her teammate's apartments, she already heard loud voices inside. One was Naruto's. The other was a female's, so she could only assume it was Karin's. Sasuke's group couldn't have been there for more than the couple of hours, yet Naruto was already arguing with one of them? Sakura wished she could be surprised, but she really wasn't. Sighing, she simply knocked on the door loudly enough for someone inside to hear. Naruto answered it in a moment, still yelling.
"For the last time, I had it from the start!" he shouted over his shoulder as the door swung open. He had already dressed down into an old t-shirt and shorts and she could see behind him that the others were in their nightwear as well. His eyes brightened when they landed on her. "You're really here, Sakura-chan!"
"I told you I would be," Sakura replied as she stepped inside, taking in the stoic form of Sasuke leaning against the wall Jūgo and Karin sat at the round tablewhere a bunch of cards were lying on the table.
"There is no way you could've gotten those hands twice in a row! Absolutely no way!" Karin screamed, hands slamming down in complete outrage. In her anger, she didn't even seem to notice that Sakura had entered the room.
"You can't just accuse me of cheating for being lucky!" Naruto retorted with a glare as he sat back down on the floor in front of the table.
"Yes I can because you are!"
"It's just a game..." Jūgo said with a tired smile and was promptly ignored.
"Sasuke, tell her to quit yelling at me! I didn't do anything wrong!" Naruto shouted over the table at his friend.
"Sasuke, tell him to 'fess up and quit cheating!" Karin shouted in perfect conjunction.
The man didn't even bother looking at the two of them, instead slumping against the corner of the wall and staring out the window. "You're both too noisy."
"Sasuke!" the two of them whined simultaneously before exchanging yet another set of glares and started to yell at each other again.
"Er, hello. I don't think we've formally met," Jūgo greeted her as he stood from the table and bowed politely. "I'm Jūgo. Sasuke has been kind enough to take me in, even with my condition."
It surprised her a little how open he was about the fits of rage and destruction he had, considering she had only heard about it in more detail through Shizune as a result of cooperative interrogation, though it also made sense that he would be so compliant if he wanted to stay in Konoha with Sasuke. Even Sasuke had been unexpectedly blunt in his answers, although he had only been willing to speak to Kakashi about such matters. She didn't know the details, but obviously their candidness combined with their contribution during the war had been enough to release them from prison quickly.
"I'm Haruno Sakura," she said, bowing in return. "I hope we can get along. This may be a bit sudden, but I've heard a bit about your condition through my colleagues. We have the best medical facilities here in the world, so if you'd like, we may be able to find something to help with your unwanted impulses."
Jūgo looked stunned. "O-oh. I'll...think about it. Thank you."
"I'm Karin!" the redhead introduced herself as she shoved Naruto out of the way and finally seemed to notice the presence of another woman. Her eyes narrowed. "You're the one who healed me last time."
"Um, yes. It's good to see you're okay," Sakura replied, slightly taken aback by Karin's intense stare. She hardly knew Karin. What was with the glare?
Karin was silent for a moment as she scrutinized the other female, then asked loudly, "Are you in love with Sasuke?"
The room became so quiet that the caws of the ravens outside became the most evident noise around. All eyes were on Sakura and she felt like she was going to die. Regardless of the fact that she wanted to get along with Sasuke's Team Taka, she would not stand for being so rudely spoken to like that. Her face grew red, more with anger than embarrassment.
"Are you in love with Sasuke?" she shot back accusingly, so annoyed that she forgot the usual honorific she associated with his name. There was no way in hell that she was going to talk about whatever feelings she had for Sasuke in front of the rest of them anyway.
Karin, clearly not having expected such a reply, cleared her throat in nervousness, looking slightly stupefied. "Sakura, right? N-nice to see you again...!"
Content that the subject had been dropped, the medic nodded. "So neither of you have a family name?"
"Not that I remember," Karin stated as she sat back down at the table and began gathering the cards while Jūgo shook his head. "It's been way too long."
"Uzumaki," Sasuke suddenly cut in from his corner.
"Eh?" Naruto glanced at his best friend quizzically.
"Karin's clan name is Uzumaki," he clarified, looking out the window again. Casually. As if he wasn't dropping some sort of bomb on all of them.
Sakura looked back and forth between the two presumed Uzumakis. Jūgo blinked in confusion. Karin stared at Sasuke in bewilderment and Naruto's jaw hung open. For the second time that night, the room was completely silent.
And then Naruto launched himself at Karin, throwing his arms around her. "COUSIN!" he shouted in glee.
"H-hey! Get off me, you pervert! Only Sasuke's allowed to do that!"
Sakura settled onto the floor next to Jūgo, trying to process exactly what had just occurred as she watched the two continue fighting. Tonight...was certainly going to be interesting.
"I'm out," he watched Sakura groan as Naruto swept yet another round of poker. The way these games were going, Sasuke didn't even know why the rest of them even bothered playing. Naruto was almost unfairly lucky, only losing once every five hands. At least no money was involved, not that he had much between himself, Karin and Jūgo anyway. Perhaps a bit if there was still some under the Uchiha name.
He wasn't exactly lost in thought when Sakura moved over to sit next to him, but he was a little surprised she did. Though the bruise she'd left on him had nearly faded, he definitely hadn't forgotten what had occurred. Sasuke couldn't fault her for her actions that day. After all, their last interaction before that had been him setting a pretty cruel genjutsu on her. Most of the things that came out of his mouth regarding her hadn't exactly been kind either. There was no denying that he deserved that punch to the face. If anything, it had made him respect her more.
The result of all that was not tension, but more wariness on her part. He'd never felt particularly close to Sakura, but she was his teammate, and there were things she had done for him in the past that he was thankful for. Right now, he was grateful that Naruto wasn't the only person willing to give him a second chance. She was being cautious of him, yet taking a seat beside him. Oddly enough, when he was twelve, he would've thought this was just another ploy of hers to feed her crush. He never thought he would be the one on the appreciative side of this relationship. He'd spent so long trying to crush every bond he'd created and here he was succumbing to them again. The only difference was he couldn't see it as a weakness anymore.
"Alright, who would win if this ends up in a fight? Naruto or Karin?" Sakura asked him as she pulled her knees up to her chest. She had changed into her nightwear as well before starting to play cards. It was quite a strange feeling, being in a room full of teenagers playing games, careless. He was used to sleepless nights and constantly watching his back.
"Karin," he answered automatically, because although Karin's aggressive personality wasn't able to penetrate his stoic nature, she'd probably scare the crap out of Naruto if she ever got as bad as she did during her worst fights with Suigetsu. It'd taken both him and Jūgo to prevent her from trying to maul the shit out of their other teammate, and even then, she didn't stop until he outright told her to.
Sakura let out a short laugh. "I guess you would know well enough. You were with them longer than you were with us."
Sasuke glanced at her, his expression blank at that revelation. It was true. He'd been with Team Taka longer than he'd been with Team 7, and that was a difficult thought to swallow considering all the pleas he had received from Naruto, Sakura and Kakashi over the years. Who knew what other things they had done for him in his absence?
He wasn't sure if he was supposed to feel guilty or not. A good person with a strong conscience probably would, but it was abundantly clear that the Curse Seal had burned what was left of that away from him. If he turned into the type of person who regretted his past, he would drown under everything. He'd felt the same way when he was a child and woke up to a massacre—he couldn't look back, he could only look forward. He didn't regret taking the path he had; at the time, those decisions had been the right ones for him.
Unfortunately, those decisions had led him to destroying the bridge he had to this girl, and now he had no idea how to talk to her. He admitted that it was a little awkward. They used to be able to sit together in comfortable silence (or his silence while she rambled), except that had been when she'd trusted him and hadn't been so guarded. He'd done his best to apologize to her already, but past that, socializing was always an issue. He had never been good with anything that wasn't business or competition.
Luckily, Sasuke didn't have to say anything since she started speaking again. At least one of them could succeed when putting effort into this sort of thing.
"Naruto already got his prosthetic installed a few days ago. Has Tsunade-sama cleared you for yours yet?" she inquired, keeping the conversation light.
Good. Easy question. "No."
"Are you going to ask her to?"
Damn it. Hard one. "...No." Now she was going to ask him why and he was going to have to explain.
"It's a reminder," he told her, doing his best to be honest. She said so herself that he wasn't forgiven yet, so if he wasn't comfortable making the first step to get there, then the least he could do was accept the one she was taking. "I won't regret the things I've done up until now, but I know I caused a lot of harm to a lot of people. Everything I did was selfish and it didn't solve anything for me in the end. Naruto's the one who's always been right. It's a reminder of all of that, and it's what I need."
Sakura was looking at him in a way he thought meant she was a little impressed. "Sasuke-kun, that's...that's really thoughtful."
Sasuke shrugged. "I thought it might be time to start thinking of others."
She was watching Naruto now, a smile on her face as he revealed yet another royal flush to a thoroughly beaten-looking Jūgo. "Of course Naruto would make you do that," she replied with a tender expression that Sasuke had never cared to notice before.
...He'd definitely been gone for a long time.
"Heh, you and Naruto then? That idiot really does know how to turn everything around," Sasuke noted with a smirk. Dead Last never failed to amaze him. Somehow, Naruto had not only won a deep friendship with Sakura, but he had taken her heart too.
Her head snapped back to him. "What? I don't know what you're talking about, Sasuke-kun!" Sakura protested, despite the blush that was now on her face.
"Hn." Sasuke looked back at the window as the medic-nin continued to object to his implication. Karin and Naruto were shouting at each other again while Jūgo attempted to calm them both down. Everyone was way too boisterous and there would undoubtedly be someone by the apartment to complain about the ruckus eventually. It was loud and a little dysfunctional, almost like a family gathering.
Yeah... It was good to be home.