By the time they were sixteen, Sakura felt like she had known Naruto forever. They had been the same forever. He liked her. She liked Sasuke. It was a three-way knot. Somehow it worked for them. It pushed them all together, and then pushed them after Sasuke, when he disappeared from them. Her feelings didn't change.
The way they were together changed. Or maybe it was always this way. Naruto always liked her. He always supported her. She knew in the back of her mind that he would always be there to catch her, hold her up. It gave her strength. It gave her license to push him away- and she was ashamed to remember doing it. But she did. He made her understand Sasuke just a little bit more. Because there he was, chasing after her, just the way she was always- always- chasing Sasuke. Annoying idiot Naruto. Was that how Sasuke saw her? Probably yes.
And Sasuke fell into darkness. They all tried. Kakashi wouldn't talk about what he'd done, he'd only allude to it with a glib little statement or another, smile his hidden sphinx smile behind his mask. Naruto told her about the waterfall, though he told her in bloody little pieces. He was ashamed. And so was she. There were new levels and inter-shadings of shame blooming between them, borne in the currents of this secret. Ashamed of what? Of losing him. Of saying the wrong thing. Of just not being strong enough, somehow, not being able to stop Sasuke when it really mattered.
And Sakura was now old enough, and informed enough, to suspect that this was the demon that drove Sasuke all along. She understood. Part of her was still wet with tears over this. She begged him and it wasn't enough. Her love wasn't enough, and ultimately she wasn't enough. And that was that.
"Forgive yourself." Tsunade-sama said, often. Sakura forgave herself for losing Sasuke only because guilt and shame wouldn't bring him any closer.
In the end, though, curiously, it brought Naruto closer. They joined their hands together. When they were trying so hard, giving everything they had, just to bring Sasuke back.. and Sasuke wasn't there, and they needed to hold onto something, someone... who was there? One another. There was a gentle logic to it, Sakura thought. There was a sharp little irony. Sasuke left, her love and Naruto's only, first and best friend. Their love for him drove them high and far and into the ground. And, ultimately, towards one another. Maybe they were just spinning their wheels so hard, bashing their heads against this brick wall, there was just nowhere else to go. Sakura thought that as stubborn as she was about this- and as stupid, she could admit that much- it made sense that it would have to come to that. She'd have to have no more options before she could surrender, give it up. Admit it to herself and forgive herself for the disloyalty. Until slowly it wasn't disloyalty to Sasuke at all, it was another step taken towards him.
So it changed. He never stopped being annoying idiot Naruto. He never stopped doing that stupid perverted jutsu stuff. He never stopped laughing at nothing and exclaiming over nothing and yelling all the time, making jokes about everything to sew up his broken heart, not like Sakura couldn't see exactly what was going on. She never stopped being the just-not-good-enough girl. She worked hard and honed her edge, the way Naruto and Sasuke had since forever. She learned that getting better, getting strong never really saved you from your own failings. It didn't make you good enough, ever, and she didn't change... she never changed. Naruto liked her, wanted her, loved her from the beginning and maybe her feelings just needed time to catch up to his.
It changed.. the way she looked at him. It didn't change, the way he looked back at her. He'd kept this faith forever. She'd called him every name in the book, but he still looked at her with those silly jokey stars in his eyes. And it wasn't a joke, not really. It was his way of weathering the bumps and slights and crushing rejection of the world. The entire village, and her rejection was just one more on top of that. Another straw on the camel's back. But Naruto never broke. Ever. He couldn't. He couldn't let go. He couldn't give up. And she thought that maybe, just maybe, that was where her own feelings first glimmered to life.
She couldn't forgive herself. Not really. And Naruto couldn't give up. What a pair they made. How pathetic, she thought.. but behind that, behind her own protective shell of irritation, her brittle facade of normality, he was getting to her. Stupid Naruto, doggedly loving her and finally turning out to be right in the end. "Sakuuuuura-chaaaan!" he sang out to her, every morning, bright as the sun, lit up with enthusiasm. As if he was delighted by the simplest things in life, even though most of the village still spat on him. Even though she still turned up her nose. Even when she was breathless, watching him... and it took him a good long time to even notice that she was looking right back at him, the idiot. Even then, it took her so long to surrender, just fall into his arms.
For the longest time she thought she just wouldn't know what to say to him. "I'm sorry for treating you like crap every day since I met you"? Or maybe "I really like you after all"? Or worst, what she couldn't say, no matter what. "I was wrong."
She couldn't admit that. It was worse than the shame. Or maybe it was shame. Maybe she felt like she was giving up on Sasuke. Maybe she just couldn't work it all out in her head, and she knew in the back of her mind that Naruto would always be there. He would wait for her forever. She couldn't stand that. She couldn't stand the idea of making him wait one more day. And then suddenly she couldn't stand the idea of making him wait one more second. She was in Tsunade's office doing paperwork on a drizzly miserable early spring night and she threw down her ink brush. She raced into the rain. She ran all the way across town, just to turn up on his doorstop.
He opened the door and gravity tilted. "Sakura-chan?" he said, baffled, but she was already falling into his arms.