Though his body had been weakened, Sasuke ran quickly out of the Hokage's office and the government building. A weight had been lifted off his chest, and suddenly he found that it was so much easier to breathe. He descended the stairs with boyish energy, trying to control the smile that was tugging on the side of his lips. The air was clear, clearer than he had ever remembered it, and it filled him with a sense of renewal and hope. The sun was shining brighter at noon now than in the morning, which caused Sasuke to squint. He eventually noticed a despondent figure sitting on the bench outside the building. His pace slowed to a stop a few feet away from the person.
The man turned his face sideways and up toward Sasuke.
There was no mark of relief or surprise. In fact, there was barely a sign of recognition in that expression.
Sasuke forced himself to meet those steely blue eyes.
For a minute there was silence, as Sasuke wondered how long Naruto was going to stare at him.
Sasuke opened his mouth to say something, but he paused and closed it again. What was he supposed to say to this man after a seven year departure? The last time they had talked was during their emotional fight in the Valley of Death. Back then Sasuke was still young and did not have the heart to kill his teammate. But he doubted whether that bit of leniency earned him any warmth now. Sasuke knew better than to think he could make it up to him in one breath.
Naruto looked forward again, focusing on a point down the street, and narrowed his eyes gravely. He rubbed his hands on his thighs and then rested them there.
"You have nothing to say to me," he said firmly, still watching some figures walking in the distance some ways down the road.
Sasuke swallowed and tensed his jaw, keeping his eyes on Naruto.
Naruto's gaze fell to the edge of the bench opposite to the side closer to Sasuke.
"Don't thank me...I didn't do it for you," he muttered.
Sasuke remained still. There was a heavy pause.
Naruto picked at a loose thread on the hem of his jounin uniform near the knee. "Thank Sakura. She saved your sorry ass." His voice was detached and matter of fact.
Sasuke stiffened slightly. It was not like he had not expected Naruto's attitude to be chilly. As boys, they would disparage each other continually, but back then it was understood as a part of their strange camaraderie. Sasuke knew that this time it was not in jest.
Sasuke lowered his head while Naruto continued to ignore him, still watching the loose thread on his clothing flutter in the wind.
The discomfort of each other's proximity weighed on both shinobi's minds, and Sasuke eventually decided to rid them of it.
There was no point in staying here any longer. Sasuke sighed.
Soon, without a word, he turned and walked slowly down the street, feeling Naruto's gaze digging into his back until he rounded a corner.
Though many landmarks of Konoha remained the same, everything seemed smaller now. As he passed some buildings and restaurants, a few people turned to stare at him as discreetly as possible. Some pointed fingers in his direction while whispering furtively into a neighbor's ear. Sasuke ignored their cautious gossip, keeping his pace normal and eyes forward.
He did not want to run into any of his old friends at a time like this; it had been hard enough to look Naruto in the eye. Whether they were part of the crowd that was trying to steal a glance at him, he did not know, nor did he have a desire to find out.
After a few minutes, he passed a familiar intersection and, before he could stop himself, instinctively turned his head to the right. There at the end of the road, was a dilapidated section of town that seemed to exist in a different world from the bustling city life of Konoha. It was eerily silent except for the sound of stray animals skittering under the rubble. Sasuke noticed that the glass in the windows was shattered, the wooden boards were loose, and foliage meandered along the side of the walls of the buildings.
Juxtaposed to the atmosphere of decay, however, were remnants of an elegant past that recalled a more prosperous time. The elaborate wall decorations and vases that had once graced the buildings in their heyday were now too defaced even for looters to pilfer. An old tapestry with the familiar red and white symbol was used as a sleeping mat by one of the homeless.
Sasuke's legs felt like buckling right in the middle of the intersection.
It had been ages.
He remembered that as a child, after that incident, he would always avoid this particular path through the city.
Sasuke looked down to the brown dirt on the street to regain his composure. Then he sternly resumed walking straight.
His mind was no longer focused on the recent events or his narrow escape from death. Two facts filled his consciousness. He was still alive...and so was his brother.
He would have his day yet.
Faces blurred past him as Sasuke walked mechanically down the street.
Even if he was forced to stay in Konoha, it would be impossible for him to forget about the thing that kept him alive for the past seven years. Those scars ran too deep to ever be ignored; they were ingrained in his body like his own genetic make-up. His pain had shaped every part of his identity and it seemed to prescribe the path of his future.
Sasuke clenched his fists frustratingly.
If only he had his power back...
He knew he was in no shape to face Itachi now. For at least three years, he would have to take a long break from his ambition. On one hand it was like a relief, a temporary freedom from the incessant force that had pushed him forward. If he chose to, he would have the time and opportunity to think about his goals and lead a somewhat normal life. On the other hand, he felt powerless, vulnerable, and unprepared without his higher level skills. Even if he retained most of his taijutsu, his genjustu and ninjustu were now extraordinarily weakened. Almost any of the middle ranked shinobi could prove to be a challenge now. The thought of it made his stomach reel in disgust.
If word got out about what the Hokage did to him—and he did not know how it could not—who was to say that some vindictive shinobi would not seek him out and deliver a different sort of punishment? To say the least, he had certainly offended many people over the years. Perhaps Tsunade had indirectly sent him to his death after all.
Sasuke shook his head as he turned a familiar corner.
How was he going to survive like this?
A possible answer to the question seemed to reveal itself as he stumbled upon the apartment he had subconsciously sauntered toward all this time.
Sasuke walked right up to the door and took a deep breath. His knuckles paused in the air, ready to knock, and his fists tightened. Sasuke bit his lip and looked down at the mat on the floor.
Was he ready for what would come?
Before he could answer that question for himself, he knocked on the door decisively.
He waited for a few seconds, but there was no response.
"Come on, I know you're in there," he said calmly before knocking again. He uttered the words quietly, more to convince himself than the person inside.
After there was no answer again, he peered over at the window. The blinds were drawn; he could not remember a time that they had been. His instincts told him that she was home.
"I need to talk to you. Open up."
Inside the apartment, Sakura had been sitting on her bed, leaning against the headboard and staring off into space. The words had been too soft for her to hear, but the knocking had snapped her out of her thoughts. At first she was annoyed that someone was bothering her at a time like this, but then her heart jumped suddenly realizing that perhaps the trail was over and this person could be delivering her the verdict.
Sakura checked herself.
Did it really matter what the result was? Could it have ended any other way? And regardless, why would she even care?
The knocking repeated its steady rhythm.
Sakura pressed her lips together and looked down at her knees. She did not really want to see Naruto...or Lee or Ino or anyone else.
For a moment, Sakura stayed put and waited silently for the visitor's patience to run out. She sat still, but soon noticed her skin was tingling with anxiety and the knot in her stomach had tightened tortuously in the last minute.
The knocking persisted.
Sakura gritted her teeth. It was killing her. No matter how much she tried to convince herself otherwise, she had to know. It would be easier, she told herself, to get this part over with.
She finally threw off the comforter, and slid off the bed.
Sakura's knees were on the verge of collapsing as she made her way noiselessly towards the door.
Another knock. It was loud; she felt it in her heart.
Her hand paused on the bottom lock.
She swallowed hard and then quickly undid the locks one after the other with fumbling hands.
As she turned the knob and swung open the door, she heard a voice that was like a blow to the gut.
"I'm going to wait outside until you..."
The door moved through its path before Sakura could ask her if opening it was a good decision. Her gaze automatically fell on the shirt that had been hastily tossed to the ground a few nights ago, and then moved up to its owner's face.
The man paused.
...let me in," he finished in a trance as their eyes met.
Sakura suppressed a trembling breath and could feel the color leaving her cheeks. The hand still resting on the inside doorknob quivered uncontrollably.
Sasuke half expected her to jump up into his arms and smother him with kisses, but she did not. Sakura just stood there, staring at him in disbelief. Her ashen face made the bags under her wide eyes stand out. She had not gotten a good night's sleep.
Eventually, Sakura took a few steps back. Slowly and silently, she turned and Sasuke watched her sit on the couch in the living room. She settled into one of the end corners, curling up so her knees were pressed against her chest. The door was still open, and Sasuke hesitated, debating whether he should go in or leave.
After a few moments loitering inside the frame, he entered the apartment, and shut the door quietly behind him. He paused for a few seconds, leaning against the door. The brightness of the day was instantly shut out, and the gloomy apartment looked solemn and suddenly unfamiliar to him.
Sakura's gaze was intently focused on a corner in the room while Sasuke moved carefully to the couch. He sat down on the opposite side, and Sakura felt the weight of his body sink into the cushions.
He was positioned with his feet on the ground, leaning his weight forward with his forearms resting on the top of his thighs, hands clasped between his knees. For awhile, the only audible sound- the only sign that time was actually passing- was the ticking of the wall clock.
When she had run out of the courthouse this morning, Sasuke expected something might be amiss. Her detached attitude now confirmed his fears. The expression on her face was filled with shock, but it could not completely hide the resentment. For awhile, he avoided it and studied the coffee-table in front of him which was littered with a few magazines and empty take-out boxes.
Eventually Sakura voice penetrated the silence.
"She let you go," she said quietly without turning her head toward him.
"I see that upsets you," he remarked with a hint of bitterness.
Sakura sighed. There was a reason why she did not welcome him back with open arms. Had he expected her to overlook everything he had done and to go on acting like nothing had changed?
When her eyes turned to him, the initial shock had melted away into disillusionment. Sasuke forced himself to meet them.
"You never regretted it?" she asked breathlessly while shaking her head, "All this time...you never had a conscience?"
Sasuke looked down disappointedly at his clasped fingers again. So she wanted to talk about his crimes.
"When people begged for their life...did you not feel sympathy for them?" There was the slightest suggestion of hope in her voice. It was searching for some hint that it was still all a lie, but his face remained solemn and lowered out of clear view. He did not want to tell her the truth, that in fact he had regretted nothing to the very end.
Sakura, however, saw the answer in his stillness. She continued to shake her head in disbelief.
"Or was seeing people in pain, having them completely under your mercy not enough for you," she proposed tremulously.
Sasuke swallowed and did not respond. This was not how he had expected things to proceed, and he felt an uncontrollable surge of anger start to swell inside of him.
"Tell me," she whispered a little more harshly. "What was going through your mind when you tortured another person? Did you enjoy it?"
"Sakura, listen to me...," he said quietly, while turning his head to look at her. She looked at him expectantly, but his gaze slowly fell to the side, wondering what it was he had planned to say.
His externally pensive, controlled attitude made her agitation seem out of place, and this infuriated her. How was it that after thinking back on all the terror he had caused and the lives he had taken, that he could sit here, mute and impassive? He could not even say anything for himself.
She did not wait for him to gather his thoughts. The rush of emotions blinded all judgment and she began to feel emboldened by sheer outrage. "How about kidnapping? Assassination? Blackmail...Do you even remember their names or faces? Or had there been just too many to remember."
Sasuke gritted his teeth and tightened the muscles in his jaw. He was losing his patience; if this berating went on for much longer, who knew what would come out of his mouth in a fit of rage. It had been a trying morning, and the last person he had thought he would have to explain himself to was her.
The shred of self-control that was still intact told him that trying to defend himself would only make things worse. His goal was not to alienate her at a time like this.
"I'm not asking you to forget everything I did." He proceeded as gently as he could.
Sakura swallowed and her eyes darted around anxiously, trying to reclaim her composure. A part of her knew it was unwise to yell, but Sasuke had never been one to elicit her most logical feelings.
All of yesterday, in the back of her mind, she had harbored an image of how she would react if, by some miracle, he were to be set free. It would be like the heaviest weight had been lifted from her mind, and she would lose herself in the comfort of his body, just like the last few nights they had spent together.
This was not the way she had wanted it to be. Sakura buried her face in her knees, trying to banish the burning growing behind her closed eyes. The Hokage had spared his life; she should be happy, but there were a few issues she could not ignore. She had blindly trusted him because he reminded her of the Sasuke she remembered—her friend, her teammate, her first love—but the hard truth was that this man sitting by her really was a stranger. These two weeks, she had been living in a dream, foolishly thinking she had him figured out. During the trial, however, the seven-year span of his absence stretched out like a lifetime, and she realized there was so much she did not know.
Two weeks. Seven years. The numbers did not lie.
She lifted her head, but still averted his gaze. As she bit her fingernail disconcertedly, Sasuke noticed this was almost the same position she was in the first time he had told her about an example of violent behavior in the cabin in the woods. He had used it then to push her away; now that he did not want to, maybe he had finally succeeded.
He looked around the room hopelessly and saw that there was no comfort to be sought here. His first instinct was to leave before things got any worse, but he realized he had nowhere to go. The Hokage had taken his strength; even if he ran away and found Itachi in his current state, Sasuke would get beaten badly. For the next few years, he had hoped Sakura would be his support. Even if it was just her who accepted him, it would be enough. But now, he saw that trust slipping away before him.
He studied her thoughtfully. Still...there was a slight chance that that face was just confused and not genuinely set on rejecting him.
He scooted closer slowly so he was right next to her.
"Sakura," he said in a low voice. His hand settled over her free one that rested by her feet. She jerked it away as if she had been stung by blistering hot coals. This was not done instinctively, however. It had been a long time since their skin had come in contact, and it still sent a shiver down her spine. As she tightened her lips, her mind involuntarily traveled back to that night. She saw that moment in a different light now and wondered if he presumed that her doubts would collapse the instant he made a physical appeal to her. Perhaps he thought he could get away with anything, that she had such little self-respect that she would adore him without reservation, no matter what he did.
Sasuke faced forward again, hunching his back and grabbing the hair on the back of his head. He stared at the ground, frustrated at her rejection and increasingly incapable of quelling the annoyance growing in every inch of his body.
Sasuke shook his head. "I knew this would happen," he muttered. The tone of his voice was accusatory.
"Are you surprised?" Sakura shot back immediately.
Sasuke turned to face her again with cruel, challenging eyes. Unfazed, Sakura met them directly.
"Was it worth it?" she demanded.
Sasuke remained threateningly silent.
"Did it make you happy."
"It didn't," he said through clenched teeth.
The more Sasuke thought about this question, the more the invisible barrier that had steadily risen between them since his homecoming became dauntingly insurmountable. He thought she was different from the others; Sakura had once told him that she understood. Was she just testing him now or making him expose his private pain for her own sadistic pleasure?
Sasuke raised his voice, exasperated. "Don't you know?"
Sakura shook her head angrily, slowly at first but then more rapidly in disbelief. She rubbed her forehead and exhaled laboriously, trying in vain to control the frustration that was threatening to burst inside of her. She knew about his past and his family, but for some reason it no longer excused everything he had done. It was always that same damn reason, everything went back to that same damn incident. All Sasuke could ever do was wallow in pity and run away from his fears; it turned out that he was the biggest coward of them all.
How could he have loved her, when all along, all this time, everything had been about Itachi? He still did not get that there are some things in this world worth living and fighting for.
Or...perhaps she was not enough.
Sakura felt the pain in her chest. She would never be enough.
This realization made a mockery of her past devotion to him. All along, then, she had been in love alone. The betrayal was bitter to swallow.
Suddenly Sakura did not care if she offended him; it would, after all, be just retribution. She was tired of treading softly around him and desperately holding onto hope for their relationship while all signs pointed to disaster.
Her voice rang out with a shrill, uncontrolled fury.
"It's no excuse and you know it! When are you going to stop hiding behind it!?"
This uncharacteristic outburst from her dissembled the last sliver of patience that was holding Sasuke together. He was tired of trying to reason with her when she acted as if she did not know him. What did she want him to do—beg for her forgiveness? He wanted to scream out that she did not understand—she did not know what it was to lose her family like he did, to have a brother like he did. Or what it was like to feel worthless, powerless, to have a single ambition for so many years and still not be able to accomplish it.
"How can you even pretend to understand what it's like..." he growled spitefully. Then his voice grew loud and biting. "You were always in this perfect little world surrounded by all your pathetic friends. You know nothing about what I've been through. But why should you, everything has been just so easy, hasn't it. Just...fallen right into place for you!"
Sakura's eyes were wide with a mixture of fear and resentment, but she told herself to hold her ground. He had never taken this tone with her, and it was unnerving. For the time being, she could not find the voice in her throat.
Seeing her in shock caused the dam keeping Sasuke's emotions in check to crumble completely. To him, his insecurities, fears, and hopes had all been exposed in frightening lucidity, and they ignited a livid wrath inside of him that he had never experienced before. There was no stopping the words coming out of his mouth now. He no longer cared how much he hurt her then. In fact, it felt good; he wanted her to know how foolish she had been. Her feelings made it perfectly clear to him that all this time her affection had been based on a fantasy. Now she even had the audacity to feel cheated. She had been in love with an idea of him, which had been completely groundless. If this was as deep as her affection was, then there was no reason why he should hold back.
"I never hid who I was from you. You're acting like I deceived you, when all along you were just too blind to see it!" he said. "Did you pretend to be on my side all this time only to turn your back on me now?" he continued aggressively. The sharpness of his rigid stare felt like it could physically slice her skin open.
Sakura's face was pale and she pressed her lips together to keep her jaw from trembling. It was difficult to hide the fact that she was paralyzed with fear and powerless against his verbal attacks. Her strength was spent in meeting those cold, vicious eyes.
When she did not respond, he lowered his gaze to the ground and chuckled vindictively while shaking his head. All this time he had believed her love was unconditional, and he laughed at himself now for buying into it.
He looked up at her again with malice and smirked sarcastically.
When he spoke, his voice was forcefully calm. "Tell me...Was it all a lie?" he asked quietly. The pained tone made him seem more sensitive than he was. Sakura saw that he was shaking with anger.
He faced forward again and lowered his head, so his hair obscured his eyes. She could only see his mouth moving.
His voice became even softer. "Or what happened between us...would you give it to every man who whispered pretty words in your ear?"
Sakura blinked. When those words registered in her brain, her mouth dropped open slightly. It was like receiving an intense, physical blow—an eerily painless shock at first as one sees the injury connecting with the body. But soon the nerves catch up to the senses and the ache begins—small at first, so it seems like it could be bearable, but then it escalates exponentially into an excruciating torture.
There were no words in the world that could have been more demeaning or full of misunderstanding. There were no words that could have cheapened her years of genuine feeling like those. She had given a part of her to him that night that was his alone, and now he dismissed it as a shoddy misstep on his part, or perhaps some mundane physical thrill.
So this is the way he saw her.
Sakura had to remind herself to breathe; every part of her body was fixed on those words. The disillusionment, fear, and hatred she felt now were so overwhelming that she wondered if this could actually be happening. When she did not wake up from this nightmare, Sakura knew she could not take this anymore.
When she finally spoke, her voice was hoarse, but the words were unmistakable.
Before she could read his reaction, she quickly summoned the energy to her legs to get off of the couch and started to walk away from him. The flooding of tears began to fog her eyes as she made her way down the hallway and toward the bedroom.
Sasuke was furious.
"Sakura!" he screamed.
She heard him, and her pace quickened to a jog. She did not want to see him anymore.
He quickly removed his weight from the couch and ran after her, getting angrier by the second. How dare she leave him like this without answering his question? He swore to himself he would get her response, no matter what it took.
"Damn it, Sakura! I'm not through with you!!" he called after her.
When she reached the bedroom she attempted to turn around to close the door with her weight, but by this time he had caught up to her, and his arm forcibly pushed it open. Sakura stumbled a few steps back, her eyes focused on his searing expression and tense body.
"I bet you regret everything...I messed up your neat little plans, and I bet you curse yourself for it!" He yelled maniacally with clenched fists as he made his way slowly toward her.
He wanted to physically hurt her; she could feel the intent. Sakura turned her back to him but soon discovered there was no way to escape.
"You regret it..." he repeated.
He was close now. Sakura, desperate, decided she would have to smash open the window to get out of this room. Maybe her life depended on it.
She ran toward the window and was about to punch through the glass when a strong hand clenched her wrist. Sakura looked back at him with indignant surprise, but her anger gave way to pure fear as she was jerked away from her potential exit route and back to the middle of the room.
She struggled vehemently, but Sasuke swung her forcibly and eventually grabbed hold of her other wrist. A few seconds later, Sakura felt the force of his weight pushing her in a particular direction and slamming her back against the wall. Her eyes screwed shut in pain and she bit down hard on her lower lip.
Sakura's teeth ground against each other and her tangled long hair swung with each thrash as she tried to free herself. However, this only provoked Sasuke to tighten his grip and lean in closer to her. Soon, Sakura became frightfully aware that it was hopeless to struggle. She was pinned against the wall with her hands on either side of her head.
As her body grew limp, Sakura swallowed nervously and turned her head to the left, attempting to stop the tears of frustration from falling at a time like this. She did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. It was hard, though; she was sure that her heaving chest and ice cold skin already betrayed her fear.
He was in total control now. Sakura's heart raced as she thought about what he might do to her.
He leaned down close, whispering into her ear. "You regret it," he said in a cruel voice, "Don't you." Sakura could feel his warm breath on her skin.
He waited a few seconds, but Sakura did not respond. The tears she had tried to subdue now fell silently from the corners of her closed eyes. It was like he was already convinced, like he wanted her to say yes.
"Don't you!?" he said bitterly, constricting his hold on her wrists and shaking her.
Sakura paused and gathered the courage to turn her face towards his again. They were only separated by a couple inches. He could feel the heat from her flushed cheeks.
Then she gave a sharp, frightened whisper, "Yes."
There was a pause as time seemed to stand still for both of them. Sasuke did not know what response he had expected, but when she said the word he felt the ground beneath him slip away. He saw those green irises watching him with crippling fear.
Fear. He had grown accustomed to it; he had even relished it in other people's eyes. But he did not enjoy it now, not in hers. He had never seen fear like this.
Sakura kept her intense gaze on Sasuke's face as his head turned, his attention focusing somewhere on her shoulder. His jaw tensed again. Her response was less satisfying than he had imagined it to be. He had been looking for the answer that would finally send him over the top and give him the excuse he needed to hurt her without hesitation, but he had not anticipated that it would be he who would be in pain now. He had not thought this out thoroughly; he realized now that he had been careless.
He checked himself and discovered the passionate anger that coursed through his veins a few moments ago had dulled into a steady throbbing.
What was he doing? This is not the way he originally wanted it to happen when he first knocked on the door. This was not the way he was suppose to have her.
But he knew...
A part of him knew he had already gone too far for this to be saved. He was overwhelmed with a sense of finality.
Sasuke straightened up slowly, let go of her hands, and stepped back. Sakura's arms dropped suddenly and she followed his body with her surprised eyes.
Sasuke took a few more steps away and then turned his body away from her. She saw his head tilt up for a second as he grabbed the hair on the back of his head in confusion. Then his arms fell down to his sides, and his body collapsed to a sitting position at the very edge of her bed.
For a minute he just sat, staring at a point somewhere in front of him. After some time, he leaned over and hunched his back until it was almost horizontal. Finally he buried his face in his hands and rubbed it roughly.
Sakura studied his defeated figure speechlessly. Then her attention turned to her wrists, which were still red with the fresh pain of his grip. She clasped them gently.
Love was not supposed to be like this. Even this morning, although she had been disappointed by his lack of remorse for his crimes, she had never once thought he would direct his violence toward her. She realized now that it was a way of life for him, something he turned to solve problems. If they were to have fights in the future—which would be expected of any relationship—who knew what he would do to her then?
Perhaps it would be better to avoid that road from the beginning.
There was sadness in this insight. She never thought it would end like this, after all they had been through. But...she could not deny that she kind of missed feeling safe and in control of her feelings. She had been so level-headed before meeting him that night, and a part of her sorely wished to return back to the time things made sense. It would be the smart decision.
But she wanted to make one thing clear before they went their separate ways.
"Sasuke..." her voice was low and tremulous.
His hands still covered his lowered face.
Sakura remained still against the wall and took a shaky breath.
"You're right. I can't imagine what it must have been like for you. My world is smaller and more comfortable than yours...but..."
"You're wrong if you think I don't know what loneliness is," she said clearly.
He did not look up. He remained hunched, elbows on his thighs, and face supported in his hands.
For a moment, Sakura watched him for any sort of reaction, but his body did not move. The contour of his broad back was smooth and still, interrupted only by the lines of his shoulder blades.
Sakura felt like she should tell him what was on her mind. Perhaps he already knew.
"If being together is going to be like this..." she said softly.
Sakura stopped for a second. Since those days in academy when she was still drawing hearts around their names, to that night she tried to stop him from leaving Konoha seven years ago, to yesterday when she rested her head against the prison concrete exterior, she never thought the following words would come out of her mouth. She had believed it was fate that brought them back together, but now she saw she had been wrong.
She took a deep breath, and continued. "...I think we might be better off apart."
Sakura waited in anxious silence for something—anything. His reticence weighed heavily in the room,
Clenching her fists nervously, she made her way slowly to where he sat. The soft beat of her steps were the only audible sound, and they stopped when Sakura paused, standing directly in front of him.
"Sasuke, look at me," she said gently.
When he did not comply, she used one hand to pull lightly on one of his forearms. It surprised her that the muscles were tense.
Sakura bit her lip and tried again.
Sakura ran her hand down his forearm again and tugged a little harder on it. She tried to loosen his hold on his face.
He did not budge for awhile, but Sakura kept persisting.
After sometime, she felt the connection between his hands and face suddenly break.
He straightened up slightly, but his body was still hunched at an angle and his face out of view. His hands now rested in front of the space between his legs.
Sakura reached for one of his hands with both of hers and he did not resist. Turning the palm up, she noticed that it glistened curiously in the low light. When she ran her thumb down the palm, she discovered devastatingly that it was wet.
Her finger paused in shock of the realization. The air in her lungs stumbled out of her mouth in an unstable breath as her stomach lurched painfully.
Sakura suddenly forgot what it was she was going to say.
After a few more seconds, she removed one hand from his and placed it on one of his burning cheeks, lifting his face to look at hers.
His back straightened as he met her eyes.
What was this feeling that she felt...it was bittersweet, heart-wrenching, and disarmed her completely. She had never looked down on his face before; the perspective made the tears brimming in his eyes even more conspicuous. That face that had been so full of malice ten minutes ago now showed the true emotions that had been building up for a whole morning. It was a moment of vulnerability she had never expected to see from the stoic man who had always lived with his guard up. However, now she wondered how much strength it must have taken him to put a cap on these intense feelings for so long and toss them aside as if they meant nothing. For these seven years, he had not had someone to trust, no one to turn to during those times everything seemed to go unbelievably wrong. He had had to swallow the hurt, stifle the cry, and keep moving—constantly moving forward.
He had been right. She could never understand quite what it was like. She had cried countless times in the past few years, but she always knew she had someone to lean on if she wanted: Ino, Naruto, Lee, or any her other friends in the village—they all cared about her. This man...he had no one.
Even now, though Tsunade had not killed Sasuke, Sakura knew the Hokage would not let him out of sight. Maybe it would be a bigger punishment to force him to live in Konoha; there was no doubt in Sakura's mind that he would be an outcast, especially after his crimes had been divulged to all the shinobi and villagers at the trial. Sasuke would be pointed at and singled out by everyone. There were bound to be whispers and rumors behind his back, perhaps even from his old friends.
No matter what he did in the past, she did not wish that on him. Even if it was to a lesser degree, she knew how silent the world fell when one was perpetually alone. There was only so much someone could bear.
As she stared at the heartbroken face in her hands, she knew she had to make a decision now, one that she would never be able to go back on.
Both her hands dropped from his body as she closed her eyes, conflicted.
Pity alone would not be enough to save them. The question now was whether or not there was anything else more substantial holding her here with him.
Sakura's mind traveled back to the moments they had shared, trying to find what could have been a hint of duplicity or insincerity that she overlooked before.
Suddenly she recalled their last meeting together that night in prison. What had he said then?
"But no matter what you hear, no matter what you think of me afterwards, I want you to know...I meant everything I said and did last night."
So he had anticipated her reaction, and he had wanted her to know everything had been in earnest.
Sakura took a deep breath. Even though Sasuke could get her so unglued and make her feel so lost, he had also made her shiver with excitement and pleasure. If he was going to stay, she could not ignore him even if she tried.
She felt a sting in her throat and opened her eyes again, looking back down on that face possessed with the most intense, pleading
expression she had ever seen. Everything logical in her mind told her that he had hurt her for too long and that she should send him away. But in heart, in her soul, she wanted to believe so badly in that ending she had hoped for.
Sakura bit her lip and shook her head. Perhaps this would prove to be the single stupidest decision of her life. But whether or not it would be, she wanted to find out.
Without a word, Sakura moved in the space between his legs and closed the distance between their bodies. One hand buried in his hair; the other gripped him behind the neck. Then she pulled him in and clutched his head protectively to her trembling abdomen.
She could feel his breath and the contours of his burning face through her clothing. His hot tears seeped through the fabric as he buried his face in the shelter of her body. Then Sasuke slid his arms around her hips, his grip tightening around her in a desperate embrace. He clung to her like he was clinging to life itself, and his fingers pressed into her skin painfully.
"Sasuke..." she whispered hopelessly.
Now she could feel him shaking in her arms.
His voice, muffled by her shirt, vibrated in her stomach.
"I'm sorry, Sakura," he choked softly. "I'm so sorry," he whispered into her.
Sakura tightened her grip on his hair and he pushed his face deeper into the region under her chest.
"I would never hurt you on purpose...I..."
"I know...it's...it's okay..."
"I was angry...and stupid..."
"You don't have to say anymore." Sakura said this mostly for her own well-being. His words were making her so weak in the knees, she thought she would collapse if it were not for his strong arms wrapping around her body.
For a moment, they held each other in silence except for Sasuke's intermittent, muffled sniffing. He tried to get a handle on his emotions, and after a few minutes he had calmed down and loosened his grip on her. Turning his head to the side, he hastily rubbed the rest of the tears away with the palm of his hand.
Sakura took a step back with an empathetic expression on her face. Then she moved over next to him, and sat with both feet on the bed, cross legged. Silence fell as they both faced forward, a little inundated by the emotions that had passed. Sakura picked at her fingernails while Sasuke remained pensive and still.
Sakura lowered her gaze and realized guiltily that he had not been the only one at fault. She, too, had said hurtful things that she wished she could take back.
"What I said about regretting...us..." Sakura eventually said gently, still facing forward. "I didn't mean it. I could never mean it even if I wanted to."
Sasuke did not respond and Sakura wondered what he was thinking. Then he turned his body to face hers and Sakura met his gaze. It showed a trace of hope.
"Can we start over? Just...everything..." he paused earnestly, and licked his lips thoughtfully. "Redo it...right this time?" he searched her face for some encouragement.
Sakura took a deep breath and shook her head sadly, looking away.
"I'll start," he said resolutely.
Sakura pleaded with her eyes, but this did not deter him.
"My name...is Uchiha Sasuke. I'm twenty years old."
Sakura remained silent and turned her head down.
"Let's see...more about me..." He looked off into space for inspiration. Then his eyebrows raised. "Well...I don't like sweets...or Natou."
Sakura looked up at him again and smiled slightly.
"My life has been..." Sasuke sighed and became suddenly serious. He wiped his lips with a set of his fingers. "Well...I'll just say...I've been lost for some time. But the moment I saw you, a strange thing happened and I felt like I finally found myself."
Sakura's eyes softened, but the sadness was still there.
"So I'd like to get to know you...that is, if you're not seeing anyone..." he said meaningfully.
"Sasuke," Sakura said painfully. "Stop. I don't want to start over again...I don't think we can."
Sasuke's remained still for a moment. Then his shoulders slumped slightly and his eyes moved around disappointedly.
When he spoke again, his voice was steadily insistent. "Come on Sakura, please try with me."
He looked intently at her. "What would you say...if it started like this?"
Sakura rubbed her arms with her hands and paused, looking away thoughtfully.
"I would say..." she sighed and rubbed her own cheek. "That I'm sorry...but there is someone else."
These words stunned him at first, but he soon understood what she meant while she looked expressively into his eyes.
"He's been out of my life for so long, but I've never been able to forget about him, no matter how hard I tried."
Sasuke felt the desire to protest. Sakura lifted a hand, and hesitated, but eventually brushed a strand of his dark hair out of his eyes. Although she had always been open with him, divulging her feelings so completely like this was difficult. But she wanted him to know.
"When he came back to me, my whole world changed. It was only then I realized how empty it had been without him. The time we spent...it felt right."
Sasuke swallowed. "But he makes you cry," he said bitterly.
"Sometimes. He has a heart that has been filled with hate for so long, but that's because he once lost what he loved. He makes me feel...crazy, confused, scared...I reach out to him and wonder if he even hears me."
Sasuke looked down soberly. "He is a fool."
"But I wouldn't have him any other way." She lowered her face to try to get a glance at his.
He lifted his head again.
Sakura continued nervously. "Because he also makes my heart jump when he's near, when he touches my hand everything inside me aches for him. And when we're together, he makes me feel like I'm the only one."
Sakura shook her head, dissatisfied. "I can't really describe it."
Sasuke stared at her in amazed disbelief.
To Sakura, the answer now was clear. "So I don't think I can start anything new...because..."
She looked at him steadily although her stomach was now fluttering uncomfortably.
"Because even though he's not perfect, I've already fallen in love with him...and something tells me..."
Sakura nodded earnestly and pressed her lips together.
"...that we're going to be just fine."
Sasuke's eyes were wide with incredible gratefulness. One of his hands crept over hers and settled there. This time she did not withdraw.
Sakura's eyes fell to where they were connected. There was no way she could deny that the sensation of his touch was pleasant.
"In that case," he said softly, "I'll make sure he never hurts you again."
She watched him lift her hand so it obscured the lower portion of his face from her view. Sakura only felt his breath and tip of his nose at first, but then she noticed the soft pressure of his lips against her palm. Sasuke then moved to the inside of her wrist and gave it another gentle kiss while keeping his eyes fixed to hers. The gesture was at once strikingly chaste and intimate, and it made her blush with pleasure and embarrassment.
"This is the hard part, Sakura. I don't care what anyone else thinks, but...I need you. I need you on my side now more than ever."
She was silent for awhile, feeling the texture of the smooth skin on his face. Then she realized she had never asked.
"What was the punishment?" she asked quietly as her hand dropped down. Sakura felt herself holding her breath as she waited, trying to shove a few frightening possibilities out of her mind.
Sasuke's hand went to his chest and palpated the region where the blow had been delivered. "The Hokage took away most of my chakra...so three years without Sharingan, jounin-level techniques, or missions. A few months of probation."
He smiled faintly. "That's not so bad, is it?"
Sakura looked at him in bittersweet wonder. She knew how much he must have relied on his powers over the years. They had been all he had lived for and were such an integral part of his conception of self-worth.
He unconsciously laced his fingers in hers experimentally.
"I'm going to see the Hokage tomorrow morning, she'll assign me to a task. Probably clean the chalkboards in academy or something like that," he said with a small grin.
Sakura gave a weak smile and looked down on at their intertwined hands again. Sasuke watched her, contemplating something in his head. Before this, he had not anticipated staying in Konoha longer than the three years he had to, but now, he wondered if he really meant to stay. There was no doubt in his mind that if he did, he would have to be wholeheartedly with her, and not plotting his next plan or method of escape.
He stiffened slightly.
"You're right to think I have nothing to offer," he explained in a humble tone.
Sasuke did not want to promise something he could not do, but who knew what was possible in these three years. In two weeks, she had already changed him in a way he never could have conceived. She had been devoted to him all this time, the least she deserved was for him to try the same. Yet, he wished he did not have to face her now as a powerless liability.
He felt so empty-handed and it frustrated him.
He then remembered the words she had once said to him. Despite dismissing them at the time, they had involuntarily stuck in his memory. If what he was feeling now was what she had felt then, he wished for the life of him that he had not been so cold.
Sasuke looked down at her fingers twisting around his instinctively, and he spoke softly.
"I can only give you everything I have...every part of me..."
Sakura's hand suddenly paused in his. She felt a chill down her spine as she closed her eyes, absorbing the significance of those words. They were heartbreakingly familiar.
She snapped herself out of her surprise and slowly shifted her weight up to a kneeling position on the bed so her feet were tucked in under her. The beating of her heart began to speed up as she studied him with mixture of empathy and desire.
"And I hope...it's enough for you," Sasuke finished in a low voice. His head was still turned down modestly.
Sakura felt a lump growing in her throat. She wanted to yell out yes, yes it was enough, it was more than enough, but she found herself incapable of speech.
"It's not going to be easy..." Sasuke continued.
Sakura wondered why he was still talking; he had convinced her long ago. With a deep breath she took his face in both her hands tenderly and lifted it so their eyes met.
Those eyes. They were the first thing about him she had recognized. She decided then that they had not changed that much.
"It's enough..." Sakura whispered in a haze as she examined his face in awe. It was filled with most amazing appreciation. She had waited her whole life for him to look at her like that.
Then her gaze fell down to his lips expectantly. Even though they had shared an intimate moment before, the anticipation of a kiss from him still curled her stomach into knots. His face moved near, and she closed her eyes.
When nothing happened, she opened them halfway.
"Can I kiss you now?" Sasuke murmured formally.
"You don't have to ask," she sighed as she held his face close. Sasuke still hesitated for some reason, and the eagerness for Sakura was agonizing. Before he had time to speculate what she was going to do next, she drew his face towards hers suddenly and pushed her lips against his. Sasuke grabbed the mattress for support as he was pulled forward.
When their mouths broke apart, Sakura looked distantly into his dark eyes.
Then she sensed his weight shift as he leaned in to claim her lips again.
She had not yet gotten used to his affection; the thrill of the gesture was still new. It was different from the one she had just given him, and also different from what she received two nights ago.
Sakura tried to stifle the smile creeping onto her occupied mouth.
She wanted him to kiss her a thousand different ways, and her heart was filled with a hopeful satisfaction when she realized she would have a lifetime to experience them.