Gently
Set pre-ch 245.

What Sakura realizes as she grows older is that kindness is twofaced. Not just in little-white-lies. Truth can be easier when muzzled. Politeness takes a left turn from honesty, and leaves it behind. The drama stories are wrong -- in the end, one of the best things a person can do isn't to say they don't love you back, but to let you fall out of infatuation with them gently instead, until the whys are gone and only a distant fondness remains.

It hurts less when love is allowed to regress. You can pretend to yourself that you never cared about that person in the first place. You can deceive yourself -- a little -- until they're gone, and looking back doesn't make you wince. That's what real kindness is. That's mercy.

The idea comes to her suddenly in her fifteenth summer, and when it hits, Sakura lowers the suture pattern she had been trying to thread.

The workroom is cool from the perpetual air conditioning which preserves the medical specimens under study. Clocks tick off the noontime hour. Tsunade is cursing softly in the office around the corner. Sakura stares at the subcuticular diagram spread out across the table and sees a black-haired boy instead.

It doesn't matter that this revelation is so radically different from Sakura's normal ideals that she wants to reject it, because it weasels in where it counts. Love. Out of all the forms of it she's had on the battleground of teenage crushes, there's one that still seeps like an open wound. It's unresolved, while all its companions have been allowed to ease away into friendships and loyalties.

Tsunade finishes her confrontation with paperwork and stalks in. Each tap of her heeled shoes is like a storm. Sakura, distracted, offers the suture pattern to her. "I don't know how to stitch this one together," she states helplessly, bowing against the whirlwind of her teacher's ferocity. "I tried."

Tsunade sighs and snatches up the diagram, but when she looks at the desperate face of her pupil, she softens. "You won't always, Sakura." Hooking a workstool over and sliding onto it, the woman plucks up the needle and threads it in one go. "But it gets better with time."

- - - - -

Kindness is what Sakura is thinking about the day that Gai's team comes back to Konoha after a particularly long mission, and Lee shows up on her doorstep in the hot summer rain. His umbrella is translucent, dotted with neon green leaves, and he clutches the tiny handle close to his chest as he huddles beneath its protection. His shoulders are too broad to fit entirely underneath, so rain stains his flanks in long spit-trails.

He sneezes twice while he asks her the question. Sakura is too distracted to say no; she can't bring herself to tell Lee that he bought a child's umbrella by accident. When she invites him inside long enough to dry off, she takes her own umbrella out of the stand and hides it in the closet to spare him the embarrassment of realization.

He is respectful to her. He always has been; it's just hard to notice through all of Lee's spastic enthusiasm. Amazingly enough, Lee does not howl in triumph when she accepts, but only makes a stiff bow, jerking down like a puppet and declaring his gratitude to the floor. He leaves before it's finished raining, hopping like a frog over road-puddles.

Afterwards, she thinks about their impending date with trepidation. There's nothing to be afraid of -- Lee won't make her do anything she doesn't want -- but an uneasy fear keeps making Sakura look over her shoulder, biting her lip and scanning the streets. It'd be better if she agreed to meet Lee somewhere private. Sometime later. Someday far in the future, as if her old team will pop up at any second to frown at her condemningly when they found out what she'll be doing next weekend. She'd never hear the end of it. They'd tease her forever.

But Sasuke never shows, and even Naruto is absent, and the calendar rolls off another week.

She goes to meet Lee.

Lee has the ability to go to sleep the same way that he can wake up: instantly, with no hesitation between unconsciousness and opening his eyes. The former state is what Sakura finds when she shows up for okonomiyaki at the appointed hour. Lee is napping on one of the benches outside the parlor, sitting upright with his fingers interlaced in his lap, head bowed slightly. The fierce silence of his expression resembles a particularly hostile Buddha. Even in his sleep, his eyebrows are concentrating.

She comes to a halt in front of him, awkward toes pressing down against her sandals. Lee's face reminds her of their youth. He hasn't changed one bit and she wonders, looking at him, if he thinks the same of her.

Her proximity alerts him eventually; both eyes open, and Lee's face comes alive. "Ah, ah, Sakura!" Straightening up so fast that he nearly falls off the bench, the boy jerks his arm up in a wave. "How long have you been waiting here? I apologize for my lapse! Please, are you hungry?"

She's escorted into the parlor quickly, Lee pulling back the door and waiting patiently until she steps inside. Not many people are having dinner so early, so the line is short; there's barely any time for Sakura to fidget as she scans the parlor for faces she might recognize. All too soon the waitress ushers them to one of the smaller tables, clicking on the heat for the griddle and leaving two menus behind.

Lee rifles through tea options.

"Do you like this kind?" Turning the laminated menu around and displaying it over the table, the boy tries to poke at the selection. "The menu says the leaves are fresh from Wave Country. A 'rich oolong flavor that goes great with meal #18.' Is it something you enjoy?"

"It's okay." Sakura gives his choice the briefest of glances. "I've tried it before. A few years ago." She grinds the left side of her jaw, trying to choke down her words, but they crawl out anyway. "Sasuke liked it."

Mention of her missing teammate shuts Lee's conversation down. His lips firm in a determined pout; he orders the oolong anyway when the waitress comes back, marking off a bizarre selection of materials for his okonomiyaki. Sakura chooses a vegetable and meat combination.

They sit in silence until the waitress comes back and drops off two bowls and two cups, eggs balancing neatly atop their assorted ingredients. Lee splits the shells without preamble. He's done mixing his okonomiyaki together before Sakura's even gripped her chopsticks, and dumps the bowl out on his side of the griddle, spilling out seafood and onion and raw tomato.

Sakura can't breathe through the smell of the tea.

"He was good to you, Sakura," Lee blurts out suddenly. The squid sizzles. "Sasuke was a good team member."

Sakura doesn't know what to say to that, because it's not true, and anyone who'd had half a brain back then could tell. Sasuke was a horrible teammate. Hindsight points out all the Uchiha's flaws and fair warnings, enough that the adults of Konoha nod together and confer behind their hands about how Sasuke's betrayal had only been a matter of time. It makes Sakura hate him even more for that: she can't find a way to defend him from their suspicions, nothing that doesn't seem purely sentimental.

If Lee has ever participated in these discussions, he never did so to her face. The closest he has ever come to the subject is today, blinking owlishly over the griddle.

"Ah, ah," he says again, piping up after a few minutes. "Sakura."

She blinks herself out of memory and back into the parlor. "Yes?"

"You're burning your okonomiyaki."

She squeaks when she looks down, seeing the mutant lump of her dinner. Part of the egg mixture is blackened and curling. The other half is raw. When she tries to flip it over, it collapses onto itself, spilling yolk and spinach everywhere.

Lee is gracious enough to split his own yaki with her, and to change the subject.

Over their mismatched dinner, they talk about the Village. Lee does not press about her lessons, only offering forth small tidbits of observation, admiration for how she's being tutored by Tsunade the Sannin-Hokage. Whenever she mentions a topic, he nods with fresh enthusiasm, devouring each of her words as hungrily as soup noodles.

By the end of dinner, she's smiling despite herself. Lee is easy to talk to. He's tall in his chair -- all the traditional cushion seating had already been claimed by other diners -- and seems both old and young at once, touched by a maturity that cannot dim his energy. When she finishes off her tea, barely paying attention to the taste, he encourages the dessert menu on her until she relents and orders the lychee.

She talks more than she expects. Lee is hungry for her conversation, offering up praise and fascination hand-in-hand. It makes it easier to forget about her worries, and Sakura realizes that this is Lee's way of trying to Make It All Better: give her what she wants, let her have her own indulgences, and perhaps Lee isn't completely out of love with her after all. Or maybe he is, and just doesn't know it yet; maybe Lee, too, has left behind his infatuation so gently that he hasn't even realized his heart has moved on.

When the dinner is over, she lets him lean forward and plant a tiny, chaste kiss on her cheek -- but she can see in his round, eager eyes that the gesture means a little less to him than it would have two years ago, let alone three. There is an awkward silence when they both realize the other person is aware of this, and then Lee sits back in his chair and clears his throat.

"I have to go." He tilts his head like a puppy that knows it's misbehaved, and occupies himself with studying the bill. "Tenten hates it when I'm late for practice."

Sakura feels an inexplicable lump in her throat at those words. It has been a while since she was a part of any team's coordinations, participated in lessons that involved anything more than Tsunade's solitary teachings. Her fingers make a little wave goodbye; her gaze shifts away, avoiding Lee as if he will simply vanish and take the problem of his existence with him.

As if he understands, Lee reaches out and gives a tap on her hand. "Please don't worry," he advises her, so solemnly that she feels her mouth twisting up for a bitter laugh. When she looks back towards him, Lee presents a resolute thumbs-up. "The Sakura I know is stronger than anything."

Sakura nods, and lets him pay for both their dinners without argument.

She keeps her sunny expression all through the parting goodbyes where Lee tells her he had a wonderful time and appreciates it and if she's interested in doing it again to look him up -- but once she is safely home, the smile fades. Her clothes smell of the okinomiyaki parlor, fried meats and egg, so she strips down to a robe and kicks her socks aside.

When she goes to the bathroom to brush her hair straight for the night, there is a horribly empty expression on her face. It looks like something bleak that has forgotten how to be happy, or even what it's like to have the energy to pretend.

Lee's kiss hovers on her cheek. Her fingers brush the spot; three years ago, she would have screamed rather than let Lee get near her like that. Three years ago, Sakura would have tossed her head like Ino and claimed not even if you were the last guy alive, sealing Lee's fate right there.

Are you this desperate? Sakura's teenage reflection jeers at her in the mirror. She tries to ignore it, turning away and shutting off the light, but it follows her down the hall, giggling in every surface. Lonely enough to crave even Lee's attention?

The kiss makes her queasy when she thinks about it like that. Lee would be easy to encourage. And it's tempting -- just a little -- to do so, just to see that spark of interest in him again, the willingness to chase her down and champion her against all odds. The worship that would remind her that she was desirable after all. Attractive. After the years of focused study with Tsunade, missing out on dates and everything else she thought was inevitable for a teenage girl, Sakura had forgotten what it was like to be the one wanted for a change.

- - - - -

That night, she dreams of Sasuke. She's sitting on her bed. They talk for hours, about everything and nothing in particular. When Sakura gets tired, she tells him she's going to sleep, and curls up on her side facing away from him.

The lights click off. There is a squeaking of bedsprings, and then Sakura feels warm breath against the back of her neck. Sasuke's arm drapes over her waist, fingers interlacing together, and his body fits against hers.

He disappears sometime during the night. In the morning, his side of the bed is already cold. Sakura wakes up and touches the sheets without surprise, and then she wakes up again to stare at the ceiling and listen to her mother yelling about breakfast downstairs.

All through the day, Sakura tries hard to retain the warmth of the dream, but memory provides no comfort. She can't forget the way Sasuke was smiling. She can't ignore the fact that he looked relaxed and happy, which reminds her painfully that she had dreamed an impossible fantasy.

Sasuke enamored with her. Sasuke smiling. They're both equally unlikely, and the more that Sakura thinks about that old ache, the more she wonders what exactly she's trying to hold onto.

- - - - -

With all his acts against Konoha, Sasuke succeeded in doing something terrible that might make Sakura hate him -- or hate him more. People think that his crime is running away. The truth is worse.

He thanked her.

She told him she loved him, and he thanked her for it.

So now Sakura doesn't know if that weird, helpless infatuation is something Sasuke needs -- not as a relationship, but just to have it there. As if, while he's off bowing to Orochimaru's knees somewhere, the knowledge that someone cares about him is keeping him strong.

And then -- maybe, just maybe -- if Sakura moves on, Sasuke really is watching from behind a tree off in the distance, and that would be the last cord snapped on his humanity.

That's how it happens in stories. All the tragedies, at least. The love interest forgets about the hero and he's doomed to at least three acts of depravity, not counting his redemption scenes. When he does get redeemed. Sakura reminds herself that it's just a matter of time, except that the spectre of Orochimaru is never far away, and Sakura's seen how Tsunade's lips get chapped when she bites them late at night looking out the window.

Sasuke is a teammate. Sakura's been in love with him, and now -- now she doesn't know. It would have been easier if he'd let her go, if he'd let her move on sooner from her little-girl crush, but she can overcome it. The most important thing is getting her Team back together, with both Naruto and Sasuke intact. Everything else, she can deal with later.

Because if there's anything Sakura knows, it's that Sasuke has never been gentle.