A/N: I thought I would try my hand at Sasuke/Sakura again and came up with this little ditty. I've taken liberties with the end of the story, the "final battle" and such. I'm sure this will all be debunked in the end, but it was fun to imagine. I hope you enjoy it!

Note: There are spoilers, so be warned.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan story.

Autumn Leaf

By Nessie

The name of Uchiha had become like an autumn leaf; crisp, but brittle and easily torn. It was vibrant and beautiful, but only for a moment, only for its time. And then it was crunched beneath a careless foot without a second thought given, or it browned and decayed, destined to be slowly worn away by the merciless winter.

And then, when spring once again melted its destroyer, it would be gone. Easily replaced, as though it had never been needed. Maybe it hadn't.

He woke feeling much like that autumn leaf…weak, tired, with only a matter of time before death. He wondered who it had been to triumph over him – he, the product of Orochimaru himself.

But then Sasuke remembered as his eyes cracked open and blinding light broke in like jagged knives – this was what living felt like.

A hospital. How…cliché, he thought as his irises began to adjust to the brightness and the offending scents of drugs and antibiotics tortures his nose. Yet it only took a handful of seconds for him to realize that he was, in fact, not laying in a hospital at all. The bed he reclined in was wider than the standard size for patients, and it was dressed with clean sheets that were blue, not white. There were no skin-bleaching fluorescent lights, only warm sunlight that seeped in like golden water through a tall set of double windows to his left.

He was in an apartment. Sniffing, he took in the smell that was almost fully masked by the scent of medicines: perspiration and daffodils. Dual proof of spent effort and yearlong peace. A kunoichi's apartment, confirmed by the right wall lines with kunai and shuriken made to fit a woman's hand. But there was also a large set of barbells in the corner that was definitely designed for men.

It was over, Sasuke mused, opting to consider his location later lest he became confused and his head hurt more than it already did. Orochimaru's invasion had failed – that much was clear. Someone had to have killed him, killed him, but left Sasuke alive. This made little sense, indeed, it made none to him. He recalled visions, smatters of memories. Blood flying in sprays of crimson life, a flash of orange, and an angry snarl. "Sasuke, you idiot bastard!"

He had a recollection of darkness. There was always darkness, but this time there had been a warm touch on his arm, cool lips at his ear, a brush of tender pink passing before his eyes, and…

"Welcome home, Sasuke."

Eyes the color of charcoal widened, and he felt an odd pressure in his chest that had nothing to do with his half-healed wounds. Was it the painkillers floating through his system? Or the sun so bright, reflecting off layers of snow outside?

If it was winter, and he was a dried leaf, shouldn't he be dead?

The sound of a door opening and closing forced his racing train of thought to brake and stop. Then he realized for the first time, when he found himself unable to twist around and identify the arrival, he was tied down.

The daffodil scent was reinforced, and then eyes like the sea, strawberry hair, lips he had dared think of only in dreams, in private, for years and years

"Sasuke."

The voice he had nearly forgotten. No, that wasn't it. The voice had changed, it had deepened and become more real, more human. This was not the voice of a twelve-year-old girl whose life had just commenced, but of a woman who had lived, who had seen – had given – life and death and everything in between.

The sight of her had him struggling to breathe properly. He was not busy now, he was not trying to annihilate everything in his path – he was unable to ignore, he couldn't blind himself to her the way he had continually done in the past. Seeing her was like seeing clouds part; it hurt to look at first, but then there was the sun, and he couldn't look away.

"Sakura." He own voice sounded hoarse and bitter to his ears. He thought he saw her lower lip twitch when he said her name. "Where am I?"

Sakura, to her credit, was perfectly serene as she perched on the very edge of the bed, sitting so minimally that most of her weight was actually on her legs. She did not look at him as she methodically checked the IV leaking drugs into his wrist. "My room," she told him after a long pause.

For some reason, the notion struck him as amusing – or maybe he was just finally going fully crazy – and the corner of his mouth budged upward. He didn't realize it, but in that moment he looked disturbingly like Itachi…that former brother of his that he had finally managed to exterminate like the insect he had been. "Why am I here?"

"Because." There was the lightest hint of a snap to her voice that had the smirk straightening, and Sasuke went totally still. "There wasn't room for you after housing all of the victims that you hurt."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Is that why you've got me in restraints?"

"That wasn't my idea." But her tone was answer enough for him. She stood up, seemingly discontent to sit so close to him. He briefly thought her hands were shaking but when he looked again, they were as motionless as a corpse. And as white, and probably just as cold. When he looked up, her eyes were hard and sharp with the knowledge of the things he had done, and the thing she had done to try and stop him. There was no hint of regard, just the automatic care of one with the duty to nurture the unwell. And Sakura certainly must have thought him unwell.

Whatever reaction he was causing was not the one he might have given her when they were children.

Children… Sasuke stared back, letting her know that she would not back him down with words, and hoping to hide what her cold eyes were doing to him. They were no longer children; they were ninja with years and a blood-soaked battlefield separating them.

"I brought you here," said Sakura after what seemed like hours of silence, "because anywhere else, you would have been killed. Whether it was on purpose or because no one else has the skill, you would not be breathing now. I don't expect gratitude."

Who was this woman, he wondered, who had learned in a short string of years to revitalize a stopped heart and restore a charred mind? Though his mind, he was sure, was still smoking, he was at least alive. He couldn't find the words with which to respond, and the only thing he could think to tell her was, of all things, the truth.

"I've become stronger."

He watched as Sakura's hands bunched into fists, sleek muscles tightening along the length of her arms with the motion. "So have I, Sasuke."

"Why did you save me?" Sasuke asked suddenly, hardly understanding why he knew, somehow, that she was responsible for his life. "The fight with Naruto. He was ready to finish me off, and then you came, and he—"

"Naruto would not," she muttered ferociously, "have killed you. You don't understand. It has been eight years."

Eight years since their days as Konoha Genin. Eight years since a girl of twelve followed him to the gates of a wayward path and swore her love, offered herself as a companion in sin. Since he took his hand to that girl and, in a contradictory action, set her to rest on a cold bench when all she wanted was to give him was warm arms.

All he had been able to say then was thank you. Words he could no longer find within himself.

And eight years seemed to have been enough time for Sakura to effectively stop loving him.

"They asked me to kill you."

Sasuke's gaze shot up to hers just in time to watch as she took a kunai down from the wall and cut the binds that held him to her mattress. He felt a slight sting in his newly-freed wrists as he sent her quizzical look. She replied by setting her hand against his forehead, catching him off-guard.

"You need to rest more," she said as though her previous statement had never been uttered. "You have a fever. It's a bad time for one – it's supposed to be getting colder."

She was not about to start talking about the weather. Not when she looked ready to take those powerful fists to something, possibly him, or at the very least throw that kunai at something soft. Sasuke acquiesced to her suggestion, however, and studied her beneath half-closed lids.

"But you didn't kill me," he said flatly.

Sakura's shoulders tightened; it was visible even beneath the short-sleeved sweater she was wearing. Her hair flew with a sharp head movement, and she glared at the headboard just beyond him.

"Of course I didn't." She murmured it as though it was an obvious wish she had made on long-fallen stars. "Despite the fact that you almost killed Kakashi-sensei, almost killed Tsunade-sama, and killed Naruto just a little bit—"

The way she phrased it – just a little bit – affected him more deeply than he would have thought. He turned his head sideways to keep his eyes from her view.

"I couldn't kill you, Sasuke." Suddenly, like a ray of moonlight slanting its way through cut glass, Sakura gave him a pained smile. "In spite of everything…I just wanted you back."

His fingers dug into the sheets, but they went lax when he once again felt her palm, against his cheek this time. Sakura came closer and turned his face back to her.

"What happened?"

Sasuke had no idea how she could do this…how she could touch him, after all the hurt and death he had caused, how she could look into his eyes like – like that, like every after eight years she still…

"I became my brother," he heard himself say. "And then I killed him for it."

Her mouth tightened into a straight, rigid line. Sasuke found he couldn't stop staring at it.

"And that's why you should have killed me." Reaching out, he grasped the kunai still lingering in her grip, and brought it and Sakura's hand up near his chest. "I can't stay here, Sakura."

Sakura jerked back all at once, and then the hand that had been a gentle caress because a weapon, and she snapped his entire head to the side with a knuckle-stinging slap. Silence but for winter songbirds beyond the windows filled the room.

Sakura lowered both hands to his shoulders and violently shook him. "What the hell is wrong with you?!" she demanded, voice heightening to an audible shrill. "You left, you joined the damn enemy and fought your homeland, you tried to take out everyone that was ever important to me, and then you made it through and now you say that should've killed you?!" Tears filled her eyes like the tide washing over a summer field. "I should've killed you? I—"

Years from now, Sasuke will not know where he found the strength nor the will to surge upward against her strong hands and kiss her. He kissed this powerful, strong, terrifying kunoichi, the woman who had been born of an ambitious girl. His fingers curled over her hips, and his heart raced for several long seconds until she stopped her struggling and quieted her throaty protests.

And she kissed him back with just as much desperation, if not more.

When she pulled back, setting him carefully back against his pillow, he met her eyes and saw as much seriousness in them as he knew there was in his own dark gaze. "I used to think of our time as a team. At first, I thought only of how I wanted to surpass Naruto and, in some ways, wanted to surpass you. And then…" He shook his head a moment, not able to believe what he himself was saying. It was hard to talk this way; emotions such as these would have earned him immeasurable pain when he was with Orochimaru.

He wasn't sure that he wasn't feeling just as much pain anyway.

"About two years ago, I started thinking of you. Not as a team member – just you. You cried to me." Lost in memory, Sasuke lifted a hand and caught one of the shimmer droplets as it felt from her eye. It glimmered from the side of his finger. "As I was leaving."

Sakura's eyes weren't hard now, but neither were they the naïve look of a girl of twelve. It was the expression of a woman of twenty, who knew herself but didn't know the man before her. "I didn't understand why you left until I saw you again, when Naruto and I found you. I saw more vengeance in your face that I ever had when we were Genin." Her eyes shuttered themselves briefly, and she seemed to try to hold in her own pain. But then she looked at him again, now free of tears. "I began to understand after that. Your need to avenge your family. And I started hating you, for a little while."

This revelation made Sasuke tense, and he took a deep breath.

"And then, this battle. The way you lost to Naruto seemed so inevitable." Sakura's lips moved into another frail smile; frail, but genuine. "And I realized that you were meant to lose. So that you could come back here." Her expression sharpened. "You will live, Sasuke. I've seen to that. You have to do the rest now."

Sasuke felt her, and she was like a mysterious power – much like the power he had gone in search of with Orochimaru, he felt as though she was a source of strength. But if that were so, then he had had that strength the whole time.

The whole time.

"I'm not going to cry for you again, Sasuke." Her words rang like clear notes of truth throughout the room. "I'm just going to help you."

Sasuke said nothing. She had all the words he had never been able to summon. There was a vitality to them that made him comprehend the miracle of actually being there with her, right at that moment. When she could have easily ended his life and spared him the pain of putting himself back together.

Perhaps it was his punishment for losing to Naruto. Or perhaps, Sasuke thought as Sakura leaned down to kiss him again in a true welcome, it was his reward.

The name of Uchiha had become like an autumn leaf. It died in the winter and became one with the ground. In the spring, it was reborn again in the form of a fresh bud – with a whole new beginning.

The End