Wrote this for a SasuSaku forum (i.e. for a friend, because lord knows all my plot bunnies seem to usually feature Gaara or some other crazy character.)

I never do angst. Blaaaah. I should stick to comedy. But I gave it a shot, right?

Disclaimer: Me no own Naruto. Grunt.

It was a shaky beginning. Maybe it wasn't technically the beginning of their acquaintanceship, no, or in a sense the beginning of their friendship, but it was certainly the beginning of something else not so easily defined.

"You shouldn't have gone."

They were accusing words said in a gentle manner. Somehow that made them even less palatable. Sasuke would have been able to react more haughtily to them if they had been meant to wound, but she had said them with the quiet conviction of someone who knows she is speaking the truth. He remembered that when she used to spew out facts in class, the pink haired know-it-all, and even if she spoke the truth then too there was always a measure of uncertainty in her voice. The uncertainty left no doubt that she was waiting for the confirmation, waiting for the approval of someone else. There was none of the know-it-all in her voice today.

Sasuke couldn't respond.

But he couldn't give her a convenient punch to the stomach and run either. For one thing, it might not knock her out and there was no guarantee that he was still protected from that iron fist that mercilessly still beat down Naruto when he was being irritating. He had seen it in action already since his return. The second reason is that he knew now that avoiding something didn't make it go away.

The second thought was both maddening and comforting. He had ignored Naruto and Sakura both, and if anything it had made his fellow team members more persistent.

She hadn't gotten to those words quickly. He had been back for weeks. They had even worked in close proximity to one another. There were bad memories they shared, and good ones too, but the most recent tainted her ability to approach him as well as his ability to face her.

That's what it was. This was the first time he felt like a person to her. It was odd how this is what did him in, rather than any of the other things he had obviously been to her in their time together.

The way it started he was pretty sure he couldn't remember clearly. One day he had been minding his own business, driving himself to be the best he could, and then the next she had been there. Her distinctive pink hair was more distracting than any of the more common shades among the girls in his fanclub. Ino was the loudest, the most aggressive and self assured, but Sakura was somehow the most noticeable. She waved her infatuation around like a banner, a badge of legitimacy.

There had been no time for Sakura the fangirl. It was annoying to have fangirls at all. He knew, in an objective sort of way, that he was handsome and girls liked that. Secondarily he was aware that he was talented and had a tragic past. Both of those were things that seemed to raise him to idol status among his peers. Hell, he did everything but play the guitar. Obviously the only thing he was missing was the ability to play an instrument and he could have been the idol of thousands rather than of a few irritatingly persistent girls in his village. Fame had never been the point; notoriety was only a side effect of his past and his drive to succeed. What had mattered was power.

He hadn't been a person to her then. He had been a goal. Get Sasuke as your boyfriend and you would be the girl other girls envied. Get Sasuke as your boyfriend and you would have proved to yourself that you are desirable and clever and worthy. Get Sasuke as your boyfriend and all your dreams will come true. . .

Sasuke knew how their thoughts ran, and had been cynical enough to scorn them as well as indifferent enough to merely avoid them rather than crush their hopes. That a narcissistic part of him had secretly liked the attention. . . well, it was a long time ago and no one need know.

Then they had become teammates. It was almost like being friends, but not really. It was trust without emotional involvement which wasn't friendship at all and more like the kind of strange bond that sometimes happens on the battlefield. Sasuke didn't kid himself, he was a soldier and had been brought up as one. With Naruto there was something like brotherhood, but rather than liken him to a brother and risk the possibility of Itachi coming to his mind even more frequently, he more often than not thought of Naruto as a rival.

Sakura. . . was something. She wasn't a friend, she wasn't an enemy, she wasn't a sister, and (after she cut her hair) she wasn't a fangirl. She was his teammate. Reliable, concerned, watchful, opinionated, but never close.

He was still not a person to her then. He had been an object of concern. She knew about his curse, and she feared what it was doing to him. Out of respect to his wishes, and maybe a little fear too, she had stayed silent about his curse but he knew it troubled her. If only she had been a medic then, or a counselor, but he knew that such a person would never have gotten through to him. He was blinded by his own fear and pain and the burgeoning reliance on, and thirst for, power. The curse was a crutch from the start, and an addiction he fell into without complaint.

There was no way she could have prevented him from leaving. At the time he thought her pleas had been moving, but even if she had gotten him to turn back that night then another night he would have snuck out again. Her attempt had been noble but ultimately futile. In fact, when he reflected back on the incident later while training with Orochimaru, it had been a particularly effusive source of hate driven anger.

The girl, Sakura, the weakest of their team, the only one who didn't make it into the finals for the chuunin exam, the one who more often then not needed protection in a fight rather than pulling her own. . . pitied him. She had pitied him. Sasuke. Not once had she pitied the other one, the orphan who had fought for acknowledgement all his life. What had rankled about it so much is how he knew she didn't pity the blond because she lacked compassion, but because she knew that he didn't need it. Naruto rose above his problems; Sasuke seemed to only be able to wallow in them.

So she had pitied him. . . offered her own weak help. . . later he even learned she had begged Naruto to bring him back.

How dare she? He was an Uchiha. He was practically THE Uchiha! His pride drove him to strive harder and obliterate target after target until he collapsed from exhaustion all because of that one, simple memory of another's compassion. Oh how he had loathed her for that as Orochimaru's twisted doctrines and acidic promises had lured him into a sense of false superiority. His only comfort in burning his bridges was the fact that he was closer to killing his brother and revenging his clan. The dreams were his only focus, his only view freedom.

Even if he saw that night and her offer in a different light now, it didn't change the fact that he still hadn't been a person to her then. Nor did that fact change in his absence. Both Sakura and Naruto had devoted their energy to improving themselves to save their precious people. But, being who they were and being as young as they were, the only precious person they had both lost happened to be him.

He didn't doubt their sentiments. Sasuke knew their feelings had been real enough; as real as the sweat and blood they gave by the gallon to even catch a glimpse of their misplaced, misguided teammate. But you can't devote yourself to a pursuit like that without a certain amount of mechanical emotion. You know you love someone because you always loved them, or hated them, or wanted them. Sasuke knew this feeling intimately after hating his brother for so long. Some days he would wake up and there would be nothing, and he would have to remind himself how he felt, what he worked for, why he sacrificed his happiness for the sake of one goal.

So their reaction when he returned, or was returned—there were perspective issues among other things surrounding this—was unsurprising. It wasn't easy acceptance but there was a sigh of relief deep inside of them that the feeling they had been seeking and driving themselves with had been completed. What they were all coming to terms with was how that wasn't enough, that it hadn't really helped. It didn't make Sasuke feel whole again with Itachi dead, and Sakura and Naruto weren't basking in utter self-fulfillment with Sasuke back. All three of them were coping. Not surprisingly, Sakura was moving the fastest towards resolution.

When Sakura said "You shouldn't have gone" she was finally acknowledging that lack and at the same time finally affirming Sasuke as a person. He was no longer solely her love interest, a prodigy, an object of pity, or a goal. . . he was finally Sasuke the human being and he had been so overwhelmed he hadn't been able to answer. Eventually she had stood and left him to his guard duty at a rather non-strategic point of Konoha's walls.

It was the first time he had been a person to someone, to anyone.

Beyond the happiness, the bone deep gratitude, there had been an equal measure of guilt. Especially on the quiet nights he realized how he couldn't point a finger without pointing at least three back at himself.

Had Sakura been a person to him at the beginning?

No, she had been an annoying fangirl.

Had Sakura been a person to him when they were on the same team together?

No, she had been a burden. In a particularly horrifying moment she had been an excuse. He still remembered how that smile had felt on his face as he cracked the boy's arm. It could have set fields ablaze. He had glowed with hate, been intoxicated by it.

Had Sakura been a person to him when she tried to stop him the night he left?

No, she had been an obstacle. Beyond the feelings of sentimentality and powerlessness that she had awoken in him there had been one other that found its way in after a time.

The final objectification she had gone through, and the one he would be the last to confess to, was of lustful origins. By being there for him she had indelibly planted herself in his mind. While he obsessed over that incident and the fight with Naruto in turns, it was the encounter with Sakura that began to twist in his mind once puberty hit. Sasuke wasn't fighting the growth and maturation of his body, but there were certain side effects to getting older than he hadn't counted on. All that loathsome hate was just so much emotion that his hormones fed on. With sweat on his forehead and a feverish far off gleam in his eyes he had spoken her name while tending to the needs of his body.

That was when she had been the furthest from being a person to him, when she was the object of his rage and desire at the same time.

Sakura was not a burden, an obstacle, a fantasy, or an enemy but he had thought she was.

What it would mean to make her real was to bring them onto level ground and he knew he didn't have a chance. He had seen a glimpse of the feelings he was dealing with when she had spoken to him. Once he saw her, really saw her, with her faults and her strengths, her beauty and insecurity and rage and compassion. . . there was not even a chance of him being able to say no. Sasuke would want her, and it wouldn't be about objectification or desire but the need for connection.

There was a chance that Sakura, the person, would say "no". And then what?

Raw, bleeding wounds. The kind that even she couldn't heal even if she hadn't been the one to make them.

It was all conjecture of course.

Then, naturally, at the moment he was least ready to deal with her she returned. Obviously she was having trouble sleeping. The bags under her eyes weren't exactly an improvement. But when she leaned on his side, only a tiny part of her head actually making contact with his bare upper arm, he felt suddenly trapped like a fly in sticky webbing. She's all around him, her very existence choking out his response.

So he jumped, determined to be the person she showed him he could be rather than the shadow of a soul waiting for a strong light to snuff it out.

"You're right." He said. He couldn't dare to touch her, lest the well trained desire trigger itself and blast away his real goal. "I shouldn't have. But I did. And I always would have."

And when she fell asleep shortly after he knew she had been waiting for those words, waiting for him to accept himself, accept his mistakes and absorb them into himself—like a conjoined soul giving substance to the shade.

It's with a sense of renewal that he pressed closer to her, feeling an entire side of her body from the bone of her shoulder to the tight and appealing flesh of her thigh. It stays innocent for as long as he can keep adjectives like "supple" and "sweet" out of his brain.

At least when he swore to himself in the night, under his breath, it was followed by a smile. Neither of them have all the answers, but it was a good first step.