"What are you doing out so late?"
Those footsteps, ones these city streets have been aching for.
"This is the only road that leads into Konoha."
He smirked at the figure curled up on the bench.
"Is that why you're here? To repeat conversations we've already had with me?"
The corner of her mouth tucked up wistfully. "But you're the one who remembered."
Years ago she would have been able to read chagrin in the slight tightening of his lips, the barest crinkle of his eyes. Now, his expression was passive, a blank mask of skin. Sasuke sometimes wondered if the muscles of his face were atrophied, after such a long period of neglect. If he had the capability to smile anymore. If he even had the right.
She didn't offer him comfort he would've denied wanting, or declarations of love he wouldn't have thought he needed. Things had changed, Sasuke knew. She had changed.
"I was surprised when Naruto gave you a choice. He was the one who was the strongest supporter for bringing you back by force."
"Naruto's always been too soft for his own good..."
Naruto coming and retrieving him from Orochimaru- he didn't remember it. He was so far into the possession he had lost any self-awareness. And yet, he still had suspected, still had the presence of mind to realize before it was overrun with the curse seal, that maybe Orochimaru's way was wrong.
Maybe Sakura had been right all this time- this wasn't the way to gain strength.
He came to later, beaten up and drained.
"Orochimaru is dead. You are released from the curse-seal." Naruto's intonement was flat, joyless. It was strange, even with the history between them, to see him so cold.
"I heard a girl screaming." Sasuke clutched his head, eyes screwed up into tiny black crescents. Whether it was to suppress the memory or relive it, Naruto didn't know.
"That was Sakura. You attacked her."
The blood drained from the face of the Uchiha survivor. Tense moments of silence ticked by.
"No. You stopped before the killing blow. She was returned to Konoha to heal."
The relief in Sasuke's stomach made him want to vomit. Neither boy talked after that.
It was just Nartuo with him up until the city limits. He turned to him then, and released him of the bonds he had woken up in.
"Sasuke. After all this time..." He trailed off, deciding to start a different way. "I tried hard to save you. I watched people you never even spoke to almost die for your sake...even at your hands."
The only indication Sasuke gave of hearing Naruto was the minute lowering of his head. It was enough though, from a boy who once never acknowledged anyone.
Naruto swallowed. "I watched you drive that kunai towards Sakura's heart, and even though I promised her I'd bring you back, I knew I'd kill you- my teammate, the closest thing I've had to a brother." Here he broke, and here he ruminated, before the hard line of his mouth softened into a smile. "But then you stopped."
Black met blue. Naruto's eyes tearing was Sasuke's only warning before the smaller boy embraced him.
"I understood then. And I forgive you."
Sasuke was impassive in his arms, but the peculiar stinging in his eyes, and that god-awful vulnerability only his teammates could expose kept his arms at his side. He just couldn't bring himself to push Naruto away. The blond ninja released him, unashamed of the tears that had made tracks down his whisker-tattooed cheeks.
"I can't force you to return if it's not what you want. I understand that now. So I leave you here with a choice. But think…think about the sacrifices we made for you. Not out of duty, or fear, but love and loyalty."
True to his nature, Sasuke declined to respond. He knew he was in the wrong, had known it the second he turned his back on his home, but how could he take it back now? He had been different, a little darker, a little bit worse than the rest of his team. He chose to embrace that at all costs.
But it hadn't been worth it.
How do you take back such a betrayal?
"You once told me you never wanted another precious person to die in front of your eyes." Naruto was still trying to reach him.
Sasuke could spare him a nod.
It surprised the black-eyed boy that he still remembered the incident Naruto was speaking of. Gaara had been a monster, and he had been helpless to stop him. Naruto had backed them up though, and pulled them through. Sakura didn't die in the jaws of sand he thought would crush her.
Naruto let his gaze settle ahead of him, vague and unfocused. "She tries so hard to smile like before. So hard. But still, it's not the same."
Naruto caught his eyes suddenly, his gaze speaking more than his words.
'There are different ways of dying, Sasuke.'
"You can't help but feel loss," He continued, "When you compare it to the one before."
One last look and Naruto swiped his eyes dry, turning and leaving Sasuke alone to make his choice.
"What isn't soft, in your eyes?" Sakura threw back. "Friendship, compassion, concern- it's all seen as weakness to you."
Eyes not quite meeting, Sasuke turned around.
"You're right. I can't come back here. It was a mistake. Everything is too different."
She clenched her teeth two seconds before she shot off the bench. "So that's it then? You come back only to realize things have changed, so you give up? Newsflash, Sasuke- things wouldn't have been the same even if you had stayed! Are you seriously going to make the same mistake again?"
"You've changed too."
Sakura glared at him, and he realized that even when he pictured her in his mind he still couldn't get that shade of green right.
"I waited every night on this bench for the first year, you know." Her tone was completely contradictory to what she was confessing. "Slept here and everything. I finally stopped when they had to hospitalize me for pneumonia. After that, I trained. Did nothing but train, so that when I went to get you, I could be strong enough to bring you home…"
"Naruto!" She hissed, clutching her chest. "I'm in my nightclothes!"
"Ah! Sorry, sorry!" The blond head that had been barging into her room made a hasty retreat, shutting the door.
Minutes later, robe-clad Sakura opened it again.
"Okay, I'm decent, come in." She didn't wait for him to enter, simply left the door open in invitation and collapsed onto her bed.
"Sakura…you know we reach the Sound tomorrow, right?"
The happy way her eyes scrunched as she nuzzled her pillow smoothed out into weary melancholy. "Yes."
"Do you remember what Sasuke said to you the night he left?"
Sakura squinted up at her friend. "Huh? What does that have to do with-"
Naruto held up a hand to shush her as he settled on the floor. "I have an idea, but I need to see if I'm right."
Sakura shot him a look that clearly stated her opinion of his sanity, but complied.
"I met up with him on the main road."
His footsteps sounded so heavy.
"When he saw me, I confronted him about leaving and talked to him about our days as genin."
Why won't you say anything to me!
"I told him that if he went for revenge, it wouldn't bring anyone any happiness."
Not you…not me.
"He said he knew. He told me he thought about remaining here, but that he wasn't like us- his heart had chosen revenge."
I exist only for that purpose.
"So, I told him I loved him, and tried to bribe him to stay here. He was unresponsive."
From here on out, our paths will change.
"So then I said that if he left, I would understand his loneliness and if it came down to it, I would help him pursue strength and his hunt for Itachi. I said I would even desert the Leaf for him."
Please take me with you.
"Of course, he was unaffected."
You really are annoying.
"So that's when I threatened to scream. Next thing I knew, he was behind me, and I came to the next morning on a bench."
"Hmmm…" Naruto bowed his head into his fist, deep in thought. A slightly ridiculous gesture, but on Naruto it almost seemed natural. "Sakura, I think you were wrong when you said only I could bring him back"
"Why do you say that?" She hugged her pillow closer, willing herself to be calm about this topic...it had been three years. This should be easy by now.
"Sasuke just about spilled his guts to me when we last fought- but his conversation with you was short by comparison."
She favored him with a wan smile. "You were closer to him, Naruto."
Naruto shook his head in disagreement. "No, no, that's not it at all. After all, he didn't tell me about his curse seal, or you about his precious people."
"Precious people?" Sakura wiggled under the covers, the chill of the room driving her to distraction.
"The point is, Sasuke is as much a ninja talking as he is fighting. But Sasuke isn't a good talker- he's outclassed by you, and he knows it. So he says what he's gotta to you, and bolts before you can convince him he's wrong. Now me, on the other hand- Sasuke's always had more brain. He knows it. He doesn't care if blabs out his life story because he knows I can't turn his words into weapons. I'm too unskilled." Naruto grinned at her, the expression still as goofy as it was when he was twelve. "No way he would let Sakura get a word in edgewise. Just like he won't let me get in a good punch."
"Where are you going with this Naruto?" Sakura was genuinely intrigued now. Naruto's theory held water in some crazy backwards logic kinda way.
"If Sasuke knows you're you, his mouth stays shut. But if he thinks you're me…"
It all clicked. "Transformation."
"Right. I've got the brawn to beat him into submission, and you've got the brain to convince him to come back."
Naruto's grin was contagious Sakura was quickly finding out. "So I transform into you…"
"And then when he approaches you, do your thing!" Naruto flashed his teeth before pumping a fist into the air.
"But, Naruto…" Sakura looked uncertain. "Do you think I'll be able to say anything to him?"
Naruto sobered up quickly. "Sakura...you know how many times Sasuke has called me annoying and how many times he's brushed me off and fought with me?"
She nodded diligently.
"That day, the last time I saw him- he told me I had become his closest friend."
Sakura's eyes widened, her lips parting in shock.
"Any emotion Sasuke feels is seen as a hindrance." Naruto elaborated, "But it doesn't mean he doesn't feel them. I think you'd be surprised with how much you mean to him- he was even nice to you on occasion. That must really say something!"
Her enlarged eyes narrowed to a glare. "Naruto..." She warned.
"He probably had a crush on you!" The blond shrieked, as if he had never suspected before. "Although that depressing dimwit probably thought that was a bad thing."
"Oh my god, shut up!" Sakura growled as she socked her teammate in the head. "And quit joking around! We need to rest up for tomorrow."
Naruto stopped teasing, but he didn't tell her that he hadn't been joking. Naruto knew the Uchiha genius better than anyone, and he saw the way the reserved ninja worried about Sakura, and how he had even sacrificed his precious pride to ask Naruto to save her. No, she was important to him, in some way. How, he wouldn't even guess on. Sasuke's demented mind worked in ways the loud teenager would rather not ruminate on. But he had a hunch, and if there was anything about Naruto that was more than extraordinary, it was his instincts.
They'd see tomorrow in any case.
Sasuke growled. "I didn't part with you in that manner so you would catch your death on some bench waiting for someone who would never come."
Sakura might have been touched by the statement in another time and place, but now she was angry, years of pent up emotion clamoring to the surface. "Oh, so why did you part with me that way then? Or was that admittance of gratitude another way to throw me off so you could leave undetected?"
His eyebrows slanted as he settled his scowl on her furious features. "Of course not. I'm not that heartless."
"Don't misunderstand me! I had every intention of walking off and forgetting all about you!" Sasuke was shouting, but Sakura was positive he hadn't realized it. "But then you had be difficult and I thought...I remember thinking that...this will…"
"This will be the last time." Sasuke's smile was terrifying as he spotted his ultimate rival in the melee of battling ninjas. He couldn't help the laughter that escaped him as he noticed how weak the boy appeared- Naruto's charka was barely even registering in the red hues of his Sharingan. Pathetic.
He dodged Sasuke's first onslaught, light on his feet for once. "Sasuke." His voice was off, the black-haired boy noticed. He seemed surprised- almost wistful.
"I'm going to go through with it this time Naruto." The grin twisted into an aggressive sneer. "I'm going to kill you."
The boy seemed shaken, but straightened, tilting his head upward. There was something so off, and yet, everything was familiar...
"You slander your lost ones by doing that." Naruto whispered.
That stopped Sasuke cold. "What did you say?"
Naruto seemed to gain a bit more steam, rounding on the taller boy. "Why are you getting revenge in the first place Sasuke? Because something you loved was wrenched away? But by pushing us away, by hurting us, you dishonor their memory- by tearing down the very thing you mourn for!"
"Shut up!" Sasuke was furious. Before he could contemplate the action, his hand had lashed out, catching Naruto by his throat and slamming him against a tree. It had to have hurt, the crack of his skull against the bark was unmistakable, but his gaze remained unmoved. And he never once stopped talking.
"Your parents wouldn't be shamed if you left Itachi alive." Naruto choked, his once-powerful hands grasping weakly at Sasuke's wrist.
Something was wrong. But he was so very familiar…so...
"They would roll over in their graves if they knew how you treated your precious people!" Naruto spat out, a last defiance to Sasuke's choke-hold.
The Uchiha survivor's hand tightened with bruising ferocity. "What do you know, you damned orphan! You've never had a loved one taken away!"
The illusion disappeared and Sasuke's eyes widened as green eyes plead with his.
"But I have. He left of his own will, and didn't even glance back when I cried for him."
"Sakura..." His eyes were almost human for a split second, and only for a second, but it was enough to reassure her that the boy she loved still existed in that tainted body. It clouded over in the next instant with Sharingan rage, her own scream ringing in her ears as his fist connected with her temple.
Sasuke trailed off uncomfortably. He didn't want to tell her it had been that sense of finality that had prompted him to finally reach out to the pink-haired girl.
She met his eyes in defiance, and Sasuke was suddenly struck at how her features had matured.
"Every kind gesture I made towards you was met with apathy and disdain." A counter to what he was going to say- she already knew. And then-
"You took me for granted."
Yes, yes I did. That was what he wanted to come out, but that stupid pride kept his mouth closed, throat silent and aching from keeping the words clenched tightly inside. Maybe he wasn't as different as he thought.
It had been too little, too late, as it always had been in Sasuke's case.
"You never saw me, only Naruto. Always Naruto. I can't change the fact that he's the better ninja. I couldn't give you more than I was." She clenched her jaw in contempt. "I was already giving you everything."
I saw you.
Stupid, blind pride.
"And you walked away from it and threw it all back in my face like it was nothing." She was looking at him now, wounded despite her strong words, and he was slowly drawing nearer. "How were things without your annoying fangirl? How was life without me?"
It sucked. But you didn't understand. I'm too angry, too callous, too selfish. I would've taken and taken. You both deserved more than that.
She wet her lips and Sasuke knew her mouth would taste bitter with the residue of her words.
You can't help but feel loss when you compare it to the one before.
"Did you miss me?"
Yes. Yes. Yes. Every night. In dreams that made my heart pound. Every day. Thinking about how empty my life had become. All the time, because without you, I was Uchiha. Never Sasuke.
But all Sakura heard was silence.
"I had no choice." He finally ground out. She didn't know it was his version of pleading.
"Even if someone holds a knife to your throat, you always…always have a choice."
He was backing her closer to the wall now, a still fuming Sakura retreating from his advance grudgingly.
"Some are easier than others." The words were forced through set teeth. "Coward or villain? Those were my options."
Her shoulder blades hit the stone.
"Indulge myself, or deny myself?" A finger flitted out to ghost across the bulge of her wrist-bone. Sakura yanked her hand away.
"I almost stayed. I wanted so badly to forget it all. But I couldn't pursue my own happiness when my parents sat cold in their grave, denied of their own."
Sakura had a flash of what could've been. Sasuke the avenger, opening up. Protecting them, fighting with them, feeling those demons inside him easing. Sasuke, as the boy who could've loved her back if he let himself, instead of running away from her. It ached, thinking of what she had once had in her grasp, and all the 'what ifs' that had been before her.
They were so close now, their body heat glancing off the other, a warmth of proximity that seemed too gentle for the charged situation. From where she stood, Sakura could see the way the rich black of his hair left highlights almost purple in color, could note the way his hips angled outward while he threw his shoulders back. She still couldn't tell his iris from his pupil.
It was supposed to be different, it was supposed to have changed, but it was all so horribly the same. Nostalgia blindsided her more forcibly than it had in two years. She immediately averted her gaze, but she knew she had given herself away when her voice made the smallest whine as she bit back a sob.
But he wouldn't know what to say, and she had words that had waited too long.
"Laugh it up, you bastard. I wanted to forget about you, I wanted that pain to go away, but the truth is…I missed you!"
She let her face drop into her hands seconds before his crushing embrace forced them to her sides once more.
She hated him. She loved him. Her face in his shoulder, she wet his shirt with her tears, her gasping breaths her only indication of crying. Sasuke knew he was the reason she wept so silently now.
"You're so stupid." His hands clenched on her back and in her hair, and if she had looked up she would have seen how fierce he looked. "You're such a stupid girl!"
Stilted gasping breaths punctuated her reply. "I know...I can't help it...I still love you."
He pushed her away and she thought he might finally be so disgusted with her he'd disavow any connections, but instead he bent his head and pressed his mouth to hers.
It was shocking enough to stop her from crying, his kiss soft at first, then harder. His tongue parted her lips to taste her, and she surprised herself by meeting him, passion for passion. Breaking for air, they met again, slanting kiss after kiss, alien emotions welling in her stomach, heat curling through her veins. Her sobs turned to whimpers as he bit her lower lip, sucked gently. Before she could recover he had broken the kiss, was pressing open-mouthed caresses to the bruises on her throat, rubbing his cheek against the bump on her temple. Grasping hands pulled her full against him, his lean hips sandwiching her against him and the wall.
"I will destroy you. Can't you see what I've done already?" The whisper at her ear made her shiver with pleasure rather than fear, and he took the opportunity to catch her earlobe softly in his teeth.
She jerked slightly, fisting her fingers in his shirt. "It was my choice to go after you and take Naruto's form."
His fingers were skimming her collar bones, her neck, down her back, soothing the muscles that had tensed in anger, making her heart beat an unsteady rhythm. "Why do you care so little for yourself?"
She kissed his neck, gratified when his breath sped up. "I could ask the same question."
"I thought I had killed you." He was trying to hold onto his train of thought as her fingers found their way under his shirt, traced the muscles of his abdomen. "I thought...I don't even remember. I just remember being sick to my stomach." He reached down and caught her hands in his own, forcing her to cease her distracting exploration.
"I don't want to go through that again."
She met his black gaze with her own, soft with the forgiveness she was admired for. "When you care about someone, that's part of life."
"That is weakness." Sasuke growled, shifting as if to step away.
Sakura locked her arms around the taller boy, tilting her face inches away from his own. "No, Sasuke. Caring about someone, worrying about them, that's bravery. Risking the safety of being alone to selflessly love another- that is true strength. And being hurt, and hurting one another...that is human."
His breathing was rasping down his throat, head bent and eyes closed against her words.
"Stay, Sasuke. Don't hurt me again. Trust me enough to accept my love." She brushed his raven bangs back from his brow, and his eyes opened to catch the action.
"Who knew," He laughed weakly, "That out of the three of us, you'd end up being the strong one."
He kissed her again, as a man dying of thirst might drink, and she didn't hesitate this time around. Whispered encouragements had her free of her clothing, and she returned the favor, fingers decisive as she unbuttoned his shorts. Sasuke's calloused hands were careful of bandages and injuries he had inflicted on her small frame. She picked up on his hesitation.
"Don't think about it. You weren't in the right mind."
She kissed him, running her hands down his chest. Short nails lightly teased the skin of his stomach and the muscles contracted as a groan escaped his throat. It was hungry, the touching and tasting, a hazy reality Sakura found coming into sharp focus as she wrapped her legs around his waist, braced against the wall he had backed her against.
"Sasuke...we're still outside?"
"I needed you now." He panted, hands learning the curves of her breasts and hips as he fitted her to him.
He entered her in a swift motion, and the pain she had braced for washed over her and receded to a dull throbbing. Relaxing against his invasion, she tightened her hold and found his rhythm, the scrape of the stone against her barely registering compared to the full feeling of having him inside her. His harsh breaths stirred the hair at her nape, the soft exclamations and moans of pleasure echoed in her own throatier voice.
He stiffened against her suddenly, and let out low groan, and though Sakura had not found completion, she still slumped against him, warm and satisfied. There would be time for all that later, if only he would...
"Will you stay with me?" She asked after he lowered her to the ground and covered her up with his shirt.
He paused in the middle of re-fastening his shorts. He looked up at her, street lights making his white skin glow with the sheen of his perspiration.
"I will try."
'It will never be the kind of good it once was.' She thought, as he stooped, gathering her scattered clothing.
And Sasuke was right, things were different now. They would have to work at what had once come so easily. She would need to forgive him for things she never knew she could pardon.
But, he still reached out to grab her wrist as he walked her back to her house, where he would no doubt stay the night. It was a familiar grasp, firm but still unsure, even after all these years.
'Even so', Sakura mused as he glanced back at her when she put up a little resistance, his face unguarded and somewhat smug, 'some things stay the same.'