Disclaimer: Nope, don't own Naruto.
Author's Notes: Spoilers starting at episode 33 up through current episodes, and for the current manga arc. I've also taken some liberties with what could happen in the future of this series.
Dedication: For my imouto, Nessie, on her birthday!
She was twelve and she was staring at him with a bruised and battered face, her once long hair cut raggedly short, a black eye forming around the green of an iris. Her fingers were clenched around handfuls of dirt and her body shook as if she lacked the strength to even stand. It did not occur to him that she might be frightened of him.
She had never been afraid of him, even when she should have been. He could degrade her and sting her with insults as fine as poisoned needles and still she would follow him, forgiving him with her presence. He hated that he couldn't make her hate him.
He also hated whoever had hit her.
In some far echo of his mind, he knew it was pointless. This was a ninja's way, to battle, to live in the middle of war, to fight. But, somehow, despite everything, he had never wanted that for her. She was made for something else, someone else. But she followed him, and so he had to make sure nothing happened to her when she was near. He never wanted to see someone who cared about him die, even if he couldn't return the feeling.
"Sakura, who the hell hurt you?"
Her eyes were flickering between jade and emerald and he didn't know how he knew that since he wasn't even looking at her. There was something lurking within his head, a shadow, a red-tinged darkness that howled like a wolf in the distance. Something tingled along his spine and he saw the flare of dark chakra.
He was a whirlwind.
"Sasuke-kun… your body…"
He looked down at his hand and curled his marked fingers into a fist, his mouth tilting into an arrogant smile. This was what he had wished for back then. One day he would be scarred more on the outside than the inside; it was his hope.
"Don't worry," he reassured her confidently. "I feel fine. Now," he lifted his head, eyeing the doomed ninjas before him, wondering, calculating, "tell me. Who was it?"
She couldn't seem to speak but it didn't matter. One of the others spoke, a man sentenced to torture as soon as he opened his mouth.
"I did it."
One blow to the base of her neck let her crumble into his arms, the sound of his whispered name leaving her lips. It would be the last time he heard it for awhile, but he didn't know that then. He did know that he was leaving and that she was in his way.
Why then was he almost happy she was there?
Carrying her to a nearby bench, he leaned down to position her carefully, hesitantly pushing cherry-colored locks away from her face and behind her ear. His fingers accidentally brushed her smooth skin and he jerked back, startled.
Then he left and didn't look back, haunted by something softer than satin and already out of reach.
She was sixteen and he was dying. At least, he hoped he was. Lying there on the battlefield, his body falling apart after Orochimaru's failed plan, he simply wanted it all to end. No more dreams of falling leaves and memories of the summers as part of Team 7. No more battles against Naruto whom he defeated and yet couldn't. No more looking into her eyes and finding tears he had put there.
"Leave me," he croaked, his blood soaking into the ground. She leaned over him and one of those crystal drops fell on his cheek as she pressed her hands against his chest, the warmth of her chakra seeping into him.
"You know I can't do that, Sasuke-kun."
He wanted to smile at the familiar suffix she added to his name but his face had long ago forgotten how to make such an expression. So he sought to hurt her, to make her abandon him. He didn't want her to see him die.
"I killed Konoha ninja," he told her bitingly, sharply. The effort make him cough blood. "Even if you save me, I'll die a traitor."
She closed her eyes. "Then I'll just have to keep saving you."
He was seventeen and he was still being watched. He wasn't trusted. Stepping one foot outside of Konoha's gates would bring him immediate death. He went there sometimes, to look beyond the village, to see if he had the courage to do it. Paper fans and images of her always called him back.
He found her beside him at the oddest times. One moment he would be walking alone, the next he would glance over and there she was, not speaking, just keeping stride with him as if it was all coincidence. She never paid attention to the murmurs as they passed, or the speculative looks.
"I don't need a shield," he told her later. She only looked up at him, expressionless, and he felt himself falter. Without a word, he turned on his heel and continued on, unsurprised but a little relieved when she followed after.
She always followed. He needed her to.
He had found purpose again within the empty confines of his parent's household. He spent most of his days there, the lone survivor rebuilding everything his brother had taken away. He sometimes saw Kakashi drifting in and out as if curious, but Sasuke never spoke to him and Kakashi never approached. Too many memories stretched between them, all of them of people the other never thought of.
If life was a road, Sasuke's was made of wrong turns.
He didn't realize that until the day he sat in the middle of what had once been his living room and felt the grinding of rusty gears begin to turn; hoarse, creaky sobs finally escaping him like dusty moths. And, somehow, she was there, holding him when she knew he was too weary to push her away.
He rested his forehead against her collarbone and said words he had never said to anyone else. "Help me." Save me.
She held him tightly, her lips moving in his hair as she whispered, "I will."
It was morning and they were in her bedroom. For the first time in a long time, Sasuke had no desire to be elsewhere, to move, to think. Drowning in pillows, soft sheets, and the smell of flower petals, he did nothing but breathe, his eyes trained on the slope of Sakura's smooth shoulder.
They were both lying on their sides, her back against his chest, his arm over her waist. She was sleeping deeply, happily exhausted, and he couldn't help but be a little proud in the afterglow. Somewhere in their fumblings there was a dream fulfilled, a wish granted. He didn't regret it.
And he saw that, when she woke, neither did she.
"You're still here," she murmured, watching him as if seeing an illusion, the ghost of a fantasy. He didn't look away.
"I have nowhere else to go." I don't want to be anywhere else.
She smiled. Only she understood what he really meant to say.
He took her to the Uchiha compound that afternoon, silently showing her the place she could make her own if she accepted it. She knew what he wanted and she drifted through the corridors, running light fingers along the walls and musing inside her head. Within the body of a woman there still lived a girl's mind, one full of stubborn devotion and daydreams of marriage and laughing children. She knew now it would not be like that, nothing so easy for Sasuke and Sakura, and it would take time.
Time would only make her stronger.
She returned to him, looked him in the eye, and smiled because she knew he wanted her to.
"Yes," she answered. This time it was he who bent to awkwardly embrace her, surrounded by the phantoms of loved ones and a single shining hope.
On Thursday, Sasuke realized he loved her.