title: cherry apple wine
pairing: SasuSaku, possible others.
dedication: For you guys! Thank you for still reading me. :)
summary: He decided, in that moment, that she was lovely. "Does it bother you that you aren't the only man in her life?"
My mother left for France today, and the missing pieces wrote themselves.
I realize I am late, and I will spare you all the saga of why. Just know it involves Thesis, and Wedding, and BLEE, and BLAH, and a lot of other things—some pleasant and some unpleasant.
I promised you all a Realization, didn't I? Well, it's half-here. :)
disclaimer: Naruto and all associated characters, places, names, etc., do not belong to me.
Ten hours later, Sakura was still awake.
She'd rehashed their meeting over and over in the confines of her mind, had analyzed his words with the same care that had gotten her through her medical school examinations. Sasuke, it seemed, was thrilled about her blossoming love life.
"What was it he said again," she wondered aloud to herself, as she reached for the glass of water she kept next to her bed. Her throat was dry, again. "What did he—oh, right."
He'd been pleased to hear about Neji—had been clearly satisfied by the realization that her evening out with him might lead to something resembling romance. It would, in his words, "expedite the process."
Sakura wondered why the thought left such a bad taste in her mouth. She sipped at her water, and allowed gravity to pull her back down to her bed, as soon as the glass had touched her night table. As she ran a tired hand through her hair, she tried very hard to remember why she was thinking the events of the past few weeks through so thoroughly.
The problem, Sakura had decided, was this: she did not know what space Sasuke occupied in her life.
For her entire life, Sakura knew, she'd lived by a series of systems. She'd planned things out down to the letter, and the arrangement with Sasuke had been her one single anomaly. Unfortunately, she thought, that single anomaly had brought several others in tow.
The entire thing had started as a business arrangement, so he was, in essence, her "boss". Sasuke had made no effort to change the tone of their "relationship"—if the dealings they had could even be called that. Then, the night he'd listened to her pour her heart—she supposed he'd been something like her "therapist". Finally, the most problematic portion of their interaction: the few moments she'd swear he had flirted with her. But Sakura certainly couldn't call him her "boyfriend". (That word, left a bad taste in her mouth, too.)
That night at the restaurant, when he'd listened to her, she remembered thinking him kind. But what did that mean? That he hadn't walked away when she'd all but fallen apart in front of him? Sakura laughed at herself, humorlessly. And why would he? He needed to know what had made her so skittish about men—he didn't ask, she reminded herself, because he cares. He'd needed it for his story—had needed her "motivation," had needed what it was that made her "tick."
And then, at the lunch date—"business meeting," she said, correcting her thoughts—when she'd teased him about doing her the favor of at least "pretending" to be jealous. He'd told her solemnly, that he was fit to be her Narrator, and nothing more. Even then he'd warned her off.
She remembered being determined to keep her distance then. And what had happened?
Faced with those two lame excuses for romantic encounters, Sakura wondered, why do I still feel so disappointed? Why was she so disenchanted by the satisfaction in his voice earlier? What had she expected? A jealous rage? A change to her unofficial job description? Did she think he'd protest at a development that might make his "research" run more smoothly?
She wondered now whether she'd only imagined the brief breaks in his overall purely professional behavior toward her—whether she'd made up the understanding he'd had in his eyes when she spilt her secret failures to him, that night at the restaurant, or if she'd fooled herself into thinking that he wanted to do more than simply "narrate" the men in her life—whether she'd fooled herself into thinking that he wanted to be one of them, instead.
"I," she declared, to no one in particular, "am an idiot."
She wondered if she'd made up the "connection" between them, in her mind, because she had been lonely—and he had been lovely—when they met.
She remembered telling him that she was going to be his "heroine," and almost cringed.
So what if he'd noticed the change in her shampoo? The evidence did not lie, and more importantly, neither had Sasuke—in the months that she'd known him, he hadn't lied to her. There was no reason to think his implied romantic indifference in her would be any different. She would rather not wait to make a mistake that would force him to tell her directly of his lack of interest.
She would, Sakura decided, try not to hope again.
Now, she would give him only what he wanted—and what he wants, she recalled, are details. He had told her to make sure to keep a running tally of the things Neji said to her on their date, of the things that might make her fall in love with him. He wanted a chronicle of her "might-be" romance to use as his model—he wanted her to be his muse.
And that, Sakura decided, as she turned over to her side—her preferred sleeping position—was exactly what she would be.
Nothing more, and nothing less.
The supermarket was cool at this time of the morning, but Sasuke did not notice. He'd blocked out everything but the vegetables in his peripheral vision, in a misguided attempt to similarly block out—
"We've been in this part for hours," Naruto said tetchily. "Ages! Days, even! How long are you going to take to make up your mind?"
—that, Sasuke thought wearily. To block out that.
He only barely resisted the urge to sigh. Instead, he turned away from his friend's wailing, and considered the merits of buying snap peas instead of string beans.
"It's only been ten minutes, idiot. And I didn't ask you to come with me, you know. You're the one who bounded into my place at seven o'clock in the morning. And then, you invited yourself along—I would have been far happier had you decided otherwise." No, Sasuke decided. The snap peas were dry.
"Hey," Naruto said, defensively. "I just wanted to know how the date with Sakura-chan went, is all!"
This time, Sasuke did sigh, but mostly in exasperation.
"I've said many times over that it wasn't a date. It was a—"
"Right, right," Naruto said, tossing a plum from one hand to the other. "It was a business meeting. You're so boring."
"And even if I did feel the way you think I do—which I don't," Sasuke added hastily, before Naruto could pounce on what he would no doubt see as an admission of undying passion. "I wouldn't tell her outright. If I had those feelings, I would tell her in increments."
"Which," Naruto replied dryly, "is code for confuse the hell out of her with hints that no normal person would ever pick up on—in other words, you'd wait for her to realize that you want her."
"I don't want her, though." How long was Naruto going to push this? And how many times, Sasuke thought impatiently, am I going to have to repeat it before he stops?
After picking out a dozen plum tomatoes, they left the produce section of the market.
"Fine," Naruto said, conceding for the moment as they turned the cart into the instant food aisle. "Anyway, how's your stupid book going? Write anymore porn?"
He found himself more than gratified by the strangled, keening noise that came out of Sasuke's mouth.
"I'm not writing porn," Sasuke hissed irritably. That last comment had been uncommonly loud, and whether Naruto noticed or not—which he more than likely did not, the idiot—they were getting far more attention than Sasuke was comfortable with. He'd shopped at this particular organic food market for more than three years—the last thing he needed was to be banned for "indecency".
"Erotica then," Naruto amended carelessly. "The stuff with ripped shirts and overflowing boob shots on the cover? Red, curly title font—maybe pink, if you're really comfortable with your inner woman, which you aren't, so never mind—and super-sexy summary with words like 'dreamy,' and 'dastardly,' and, 'steamy,' and 'sexpot'?"
"You," Sasuke informed him—rather courteously, he thought—"are a moron."
Naruto shrugged as though he'd heard the insult before. In retrospect, Sasuke realized, he probably had.
"Have you gotten any writing done though," he persisted. "It'd suck if Sakura-chan was doing all her work for nothing, you know?"
Sasuke chose not to acknowledge that last comment, in favor of finally answering Naruto's question.
"I've been able to put more on paper, but I think I might have to add a new dynamic—something to give the plot more tension. Perhaps a third player?"
"Like in a threesome," Naruto said, almost incredulously, as he considered the packages of instant ramen in front of him.
"No," Sasuke said irritably. "Like in a love triangle—to make the plot more interesting—to add some drama. I'd ask you what you thought of the idea, but you're an idiot—by default, your opinions are null and void in the real world."
It was then that Naruto paused, a knowing look gleaming in the corner of his eyes. Sasuke resisted the urge to groan.
"Oh," he said in a sing-song voice Sasuke knew was meant purely to irritate. "I see what you're doing—working through your issues with Sakura-chan in your writing, huh? What's wrong Sasucakes? Does it bother you that you aren't the only man in her life?"
Sasuke only barely resisted the urge to scoff as inelegantly as the word implied.
"Absolutely," he said, perfectly deadpan. "It kills me that at this very moment, she is probably daydreaming about having a romantic, candlelit dinner with a neurosurgeon—one Hyuuga Neji—while I'm here. With you," he finished distastefully.
"As long as you're not in denial, you upright bastard," Naruto said, unaffected by the disdain Sasuke was making no effort to hide. Sasuke wondered if the only reason Naruto hadn't bothered with a better comeback was that he was distracted by the three packages of udon-style extra-spicy ramyun he was currently chucking into their shared shopping cart. At Sasuke's Look, Naruto shrugged. "I'm going to shake my routine up a little—too bad we can't say the same for you, Sassy."
Sasuke ignored the insult. "They'll find you facedown on that dilapidated wooden plank you call a kitchen counter if you don't start eating something beyond that trash," he said, sneering a little at the way the corners of the instant noodles were sticking out beyond what he'd mentally decided was Naruto's side of the cart, and touching his own, well-cushioned, bag of tomatoes.
"Maybe," Naruto said, as though he were really considering the words. Sasuke suspected he was merely trying to decide on his "flavor-of-the-week."
But," Naruto continued, "I'd probably die a lot happier than you will."
"You're hopeless," Sasuke retorted, as he ignored the last barb, choosing instead to concentrate on shifting his produce to the side to keep them away from Naruto's sodium-infested .
"Yes," Naruto agreed, throwing a fourth package in for good measure—this one miso-flavored, an old favorite—and thoroughly upsetting the division Sasuke had painstakingly maintained for the duration of their trip. "But then, we have that in common. It must be why we're such good friends."
In response, Sasuke could do nothing but sigh.
"Hurry up, idiot," he said, as Naruto considered the other flavors in front of them. "I've got to get to my office to meet Karin—I left my keys at the party, and she's bringing them. I don't want her going through my drafts."
"Pushy, pushy," Naruto said, sulking. "Fine then, I'm done. I don't know what you're so worried about anyway. It's not like she'd be able to do much damage—you've got it saved on your desktop, don't you? Just print out more copies. You worry too much, Sassy."
"With Karin, caution usually serves me well," Sasuke said ominously.
"Well, you've got your phone, don't you," he asked, as they fell into line behind an elderly woman with a small army of canned vegetables in her cart. "Why not just call her to find out where she is?"
Sasuke shook his head. "I left my cell phone at my place—it's charging. Karin's usually prompt, and I'm near ten minutes behind schedule thanks to your indecision."
"Whatever," Naruto huffed. "It isn't like she's going to do anything while she's there, anyway."
The decision to call Sasuke had been half-made since the moment she'd opened her eyes.
The ruminations left over from the night before were fresh in her mind, and they colored her mood in the same way ink colored paper. She felt the sudden need to reassure herself of his indifference, so that it might strengthen her resolve.
She could not, however, tell him this—she would have to be a bit craftier with her excuse. As she dialed, phone perched on a patch of skin bared by her tank top—where her shoulder and her neck met—she thought of what it might be. The familiar ring was almost comforting.
Sakura was surprised, when, instead of Sasuke's usual terse hello, she was greeted with a smooth, cultured voice that inquired—in a tone that only just passed for civil—as to who was calling.
For a moment, she was taken aback. The voice on the other end of the line was vaguely familiar, and after a few moments of consideration, Sakura was finally able to place it as belonging to the red-haired woman from the restaurant.
"Karin," she said softly, almost accidentally, in time with the voice in her memory. The indrawn breath that came in response, made her regret the slip-of-the-tongue.
"Yes," she replied, now vaguely suspicious. Sakura shut her eyes.
"I'm sorry to be calling so early," she said, glancing at the clock on her wall It was now on its tenth chime, but it never hurt to be polite. She figured she could use all the points she could get with this woman. "I'm looking for Sasuke. I tried his cell phone, but he didn't pick up. Have I called the right number?"
"Well, obviously," came the waspish response. "You are aware that this is his office line, aren't you?"
"Right," Sakura said, feeling a brief flare of anger she'd quickly decided she wouldn't indulge, as well as a hint of something else that felt suspiciously like jealousy. "Could I talk to him, please?"
"He's not in at the moment," Karin replied. "Who is this, anyway?"
"Oh," Sakura said, as she felt her cheeks flush. She was only thankful Karin wasn't in the same room to see it. "I guess I never got to that part—"
"You didn't," came the response. "Rude of you, in case you weren't aware."
Sakura felt her hackles rise at the irony that came with this woman lecturing her on manners.
"Excuse me," she said, in a clipped tone, no longer trying to hide her irritation. "This is Sakura. I was only calling to see if I could talk to him about our plans later this week," she finished, lying through her teeth. She hadn't made any plans with Sasuke after their last meeting.
"I'm looking at his appointment book," Karin replied. Sakura was sure she wasn't imagining the smugness in the words that came next. "Your name isn't in it. Have anything else you want to lie to me about, or can I end this call now?"
"Allow me," Sakura said, all but growling, before she slammed the receiver back into its cradle.
She was breathing heavily, and she felt the warmth on her cheeks—a warmth which, this time, had nothing to do with butterflies or embarrassment. That woman, she thought, is the was unused to outright hostility, had not encountered it enough in her life to be familiar with its aftereffects, and she hadn't the ability to keep her anger fresh. Already, she could feel it subsiding into a low, banked heat.
"Bitch," she said, refusing to acknowledge how childish she was being, insulting someone who wasn't even around to feel her scorn.
At the very least, she felt better.
They were, Sasuke noted with a vague sense of irritation, at least twenty minutes late to his appointment with Karin. He could not shake off the sense of foreboding he had, and couldn't quite explain it to his friend—the friend, whom, even now, was blathering away at something or other that had caught his attention.
Sasuke had the sinking feeling that, as was usual with him of late, the subject of his current spiel was one Haruno Sakura.
"Don't you think you ought to get her something," Naruto said, as they pulled out of the market parking lot. "To show your appreciation? Or at least, your interest, you bastard," he mumbled, just loud enough that Sasuke still heard him.
"I can still hear you," Sasuke replied tightly, as he merged onto the highway that would take them back to Konoha.
"I know," Naruto said, almost despondently. "You're an idiot but you aren't deaf."
"I'm ignoring that," Sasuke said, as he shifted lanes to pass the turtle masquerading as an X5 in front of them.
"You should get her something," Naruto persisted.
Sasuke threw him a sideways glare.
"What are you, a matchmaker, or something? Why do you care so much," he asked, truly interested. Naruto wasn't hardly ever insistent on anything except having his precious instant noodles six times a day. If Naruto's curiosity concerning his love life—or lack thereof, Sasuke insisted to himself—had reached that level of obsession, then he was in for more than his fair share of trouble.
Or, at the very least, his fair share of irritation.
"I'm trying not to be," Naruto said, almost mournfully. "But I can't look away from your stupid—it's like watching a train wreck."
"What stupid," Sasuke said, irritably, as he ignored the one-fingered salute from the driver he'd cut off.
"You," he said, solemnly, "are such a moron. Just do me a favor and get her something? I'll stop bothering you so much if you do—until at least the weekend. I won't even draw on your table the next time I come over—you can't say no to that."
"No," Sasuke said. At the moment, he felt the weight of his own helplessness, when it came to the Force of Nature that disguised itself as an irrepressibly loud blond with a penchant for idiocy and a tendency toward Chaos. "I'm well aware that's an offer I shouldn't refuse."
"So you'll get her something then," Naruto said hopefully.
"No," Sasuke said, as he turned left into a parking space in front of his office.
"Where the hell have you been," Karin demanded, as Sasuke walked into his office, Naruto trailing epithets after him. " She hazarded a glance at him, before turning back to Sasuke with steely eyes.
"I'm late for my appointment now, jerk. You'll have to make it up to me." She watched as he ignored her, and walked straight to his desk. Naruto took a seat at one of the hard-backed chairs in the corner of the room, still muttering to himself.
"You touched my appointment book," Sasuke said, not bothering to hide the accusation. "I told you to leave everything alone."
Karin rolled her eyes. "And since when have I ever listened to you, dearest? Besides, it couldn't be helped."
Sasuke looked up at that, intrigued.
"What do you mean?"
"Some tart," Karin began, as she sat at the edge of his desk closest to him, and crossed her legs provocatively. Sasuke didn't flinch, and she sighed—even when she'd been young and green, when she'd first gotten to the Uchiha household, cheap tricks like that had never worked on Sasuke, and the fun in it had long left her. In any case, she thought, he was too distracted by their topic of conversation, and her admittedly cryptic one-word response. He simply stood there, looked past her, and waited for more of an explanation.
"Fine. Some girl named Sakura called here and started blathering about a date you two were supposed to keep this week. I've no idea how she got your private office number, but I didn't recognize the name so I gave her the usual treatment," she huffed, referring to the usual bout of frostiness that the Uchiha clan had learned to utilize when dealing with Sasuke's less than rational fans. "The little twit hung up on me."
When she finished her account, Sasuke was frowning.
"A date," he said, thoughtfully. "I don't remember scheduling a meeting with her this week." He ignored Naruto's annoyed interjection of "date, not meeting!" and threw Karin a quick glare.
"You were rude to Sakura," he said simply.
"Yes," she said, raising a brow in question. "Protocol, isn't it?"
Naruto shook his head.
"Sakura-chan's not a fangirl. Stupid Sasuke wouldn't be so pouty all the time if she were."
Sasuke leveled a quelling look at Naruto, before turning back to Karin. He ran a hand through his hair—a sign of his growing frustration.
"Sakura's an employee of mine," he clarified for her benefit. "You met her once. The girl with pink hair? At the restaurant?"
Karin's brows drew together in question, before the confusion on her face cleared. "The 'what women want' girl? That one?"
Naruto whistled, and stood to nudge Sasuke in the ribs. "You're going to have to get diamonds as big as her head to clear this one up."
Karin watched with speculative eyes as Sasuke growled and proceeded to give Naruto a quick hit to the back of the head.
She did not fail to notice the lack of refusal from her almost-relation.
After he'd sent Karin away—trying all the while to avoid her pointed, probing stare—Sasuke turned his attention to Naruto.
And, almost immediately, began to pinch the bridge of his nose at the sight that met his eyes.
In the span of three minutes—which, Sasuke reflected, was approximately how long it had taken him to push Karin and her silent questions out the door with little ceremony—Naruto had commandeered his laptop, and had taken the liberty of directing Sasuke's attention to three different websites, all monochrome in theme, and emblazoned with frightfully pretentious emblems that screamed (in true understated fashion)—
"Classy as hell, ain't they," Naruto said cheekily. "All you have to do is pick one, Sassy."
Instead of arguing, Sasuke acquiesced—there was no way Naruto was going to give up, the way he was going on. "What am I looking at, dead last?"
Naruto ignored the careless barb.
"Jewelry websites! I've clicked on the engagement rings," he said, as he ducked, almost automatically, to avoid Sasuke's fist. "I like this one."
Sasuke turned his attention to the screen, and looked blankly at the platinum ring Naruto had presented with all the dignity of a court jester. It certainly made a statement, he thought to himself. Princess-cut—at least, he thought so; he was, he admitted, unversed in this particular discipline. The stone was surrounded by small emeralds and yet more diamonds, in an alternating fashion—the ring said, quite simply, and rather concisely, BIG.
"I'm not getting her an engagement ring," he said, flatly.
Naruto pouted. It made Sasuke want to hit him so that his head made a dent in his desk—an imprint, Sasuke was sure, would provide him more than one consolation in the future.
"Fine. Killjoy," he muttered lowly. "I'll think of something else."
"Why jewelry anyway," Sasuke asked, genuinely curious. "I'll get her a pen or something. Maybe a stethoscope. Or a fruit basket—the belated Christmas gifts Kakashi sent me last July had a surprisingly piquant selection of cheeses to go along with the wine."
Naruto's face puckered, as though he'd just eaten something very sour. Sasuke rather thought it an improvement.
"A fruit basket," he asked, in disbelief. "With cheese. You really are hopeless, aren't you?"
"I don't see why I have to get her anything, anyway," Sasuke said. He wondered if he sounded as peevish as he thought he did.
"That doesn't surprise me," Naruto replied wryly, not taking his eyes away from the computer screen.
"I mean," Sasuke went on, as though Naruto hadn't spoken, "I'm already paying her for her time."
"Right. So basically," Naruto said, "she's like, your prostitute, or something—except without the sex."
Sasuke wondered whether it were medically possible for one to stand upright after one's brain had imploded. He made a note to ask Sakura the next time he saw her.
"I…don't even know what to say to that. Except that you're an idiot, and I don't know why the time I spend speaking to you, and the money I pay you aren't both tax deductible because there has to be some charity involved in making someone so obviously moronic feel almost human through my acknowledgement."
Naruto gave him a quick glance.
"Sorry, didn't hear you—wanna repeat all that?"
Sasuke tried very hard not to want to bash his own head into the wall.
"You didn't have to do this, Sakura-chan. It really was nothing at all, you know."
They were walking to the diner she'd visited with Ino earlier that month, Sakura making good on her inner promise to take Hinata out in thanks for the introduction to one Hyuuga Neji. After the confrontation she'd had over the phone, her mood had continued to plague her until she'd remembered the good turn Hinata had done for her. The memory had given her the push she needed to get over the doldrums, and enjoy the sunshine.
"Don't mention it, Hinata-chan," Sakura said now, laughing a little as she swerved to avoid a power-walker heading in the opposite direction. "This is helping me too, you know—I wasn't in the best of moods earlier, but being out with you is making me feel a lot better."
"What happened, if I might ask? You were angry when we met this morning." Hinata took two steps to match Sakura's one, and knew that not all of her friend's ire had disappeared, quite yet. She always walked faster when angry, and Hinata hoped that her question hadn't made it worse.
She watched as Sakura exhaled deeply, and closed her eyes.
"Sorry, Hinata-chan. If you can still tell that I'm upset, I'm not doing a very good job of hiding it, huh? It's nothing really. I just had a conversation with the rudest person I've ever had the misfortune of interacting with, and it's still grating on my nerves, is all."
Hinata nodded in understanding.
"I can see how that might have ruined your mood," she said softly. "Let's talk about something else, maybe? Like," Hinata said, in an uncharacteristically mischievous sort of way, "whatever it was you did to my cousin."
Sakura looked at her, wondering what that meant. Perhaps, she noted to herself, perhaps that first meeting they'd had in the bookstore had been an awkward one, but the second half at the café had been surprisingly…well, fun.She knew she'd been a bit rude at certain moments, but his uppity nature had seemed made for teasing and it hadn't looked like he minded very much. Perhaps she'd read him wrong and she'd somehow offended him? Maybe he'd only been too polite to tell her—
"No," Sakura said aloud, in answer to her thoughts. "No, I don't think so," she confirmed, thinking back to some of the things he'd said. Hyuuga Neji, she suspected, was many things, but polite wasn't one of them. At least, he wasn't according to the definition she kept. He did, after all, Sakura reminded herself, blame small talk for the death of some of his patients.
Hinata, who'd been unable to help but hear Sakura's muttering, gave her friend an uncertain look.
"Pardon," she asked, as they stepped into the diner, and were seated at a nearby booth.
Sakura looked at her as though she'd forgotten she wasn't alone.
"Sorry, Hinata-chan," she replied absently, as a waiter came to take their drink orders. "Just thinking out loud."
The waiter came then, with hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie for Hinata, and green tea and a scone for Sakura. After he left, they talked of small things. Of all her friends, Sakura had always found Hinata the most open to quiet conversation. Tenten was blunt, and honest, which was refreshing. Some of the time, however, they were on two different wavelengths, a fact to which Sakura had long resigned herself. And while she and Ino shared a history, and Ino was without a doubt her best friend—sometimes, she was too loud, too brash. While Sakura acknowledged that these two things were part of what made Ino, they were not conducive to moments when she desired introspection.
Hinata was different. She listened more than spoke, and she seemed to appreciate silence in the same way Sakura did. She never pushed for conversation, and her questions were always gentle, rather than probing like Ino's, or direct like Tenten's.
Sakura wondered for a moment, whether her preferences made her a coward. She certainly hoped not.
After their server had taken their orders, Sakura and Hinata settled in to wait for their food.
"You must have made quite the impression on him, Sakura-chan," Hinata began softly, stirring her hot chocolate with only the barest of clinks to indicate her movements. "He hasn't been able to stop talking about you since your last…meeting."
Sakura stopped mid-chew, her green eyes wide.
"What," she said, the word garbled by crumbs. She took another hasty swallow of green tea—all but burning her tongue in the process—and tried again.
"Sorry, Hinata-chan. What do you mean, though? He hasn't said anything bad about me, has he? Because, I swear, I didn't mean to call him McDiva—it just came out!"
At that, Hinata gasped, her eyes filling with laughter.
"What did you call him?"
Sakura moaned, and lowered her head into the familiar comfort of her scarf.
"He didn't mention that, then," she asked, her words muffled by the blue silk, and varnished wood.
Hinata shook her head, and tried—for her friend's sake—to keep the laughter to a minimum.
"I'm afraid not," she said, as she took a bite out of her oatmeal cookie. She chewed slowly, giving Sakura time to recover herself.
After all, she couldn't very well tell the story if she was in hysterics, and this was one that Hinata very much wanted to hear.
He walked through the swinging doors with confidence, his chin up, and his smile wide. He'd never done anything like this before, had never found himself in the situation he'd been placed in, half against his will. The point of his pep-talk, Naruto thought to himself, as he scanned the wares behind the glass, had been to move Sasuke—had been to move Sasuke out of his office and into the world, to find something for the girl he so clearly wanted.
Instead, he had relented, had retreated—if only to shut him up, Naruto thought, pursing his lips in disdain—had withdrawn even further into himself.
"Like a snapping turtle," Naruto said aloud to himself, pleased with the analogy. He smiled brightly at the man behind the counter, who was looking at him with a certain degree of mingled interest and apprehension.
"May I help you with something, sir?" The attendant's voice was carefully cultured, subdued and controlled—nasal in that way Naruto had long come to recognize as being the product of coming into contact with people who belonged to a Household with Means. Sasuke's father spoke that way, and he'd even heard Sasuke himself affect the accent when it suited him. It made him uneasy, or, at the very least, uncomfortable.
"I'll, uh, let you know," he replied uneasily.
The man nodded, and went back to Looking Terribly Important. Every now and again, Naruto felt the weight of a stare on his back, and knew to whom it belonged. He ignored the sensation as best as he could, and went back to perusing the inventory.
Naruto didn't know why he was taking such a vested interest in Sasuke's happiness, or why he thought it linked so intrinsically to Sakura. He'd never been a matchmaker—though, he was, to be fair, a meddler, and didn't the two mean the same thing, anyway?
In any case, this was the job Sasuke had assigned him, and Naruto's loyalty—and, to be fair, his paycheck—demanded he come through.
He toyed with the idea of buying an engagement ring, and sighed with longing at the apoplectic fit Sasuke would have when he discovered it. He imagined Sakura's reaction—her wide eyes, and furrowed brows. She had particularly expressive eyes, Naruto mused.
His eyes flitted over the blue velvet displays, over the silver chains hung all in a row, over the earrings strung together on gold filament, until they landed on a three-stranded necklace that was coiled and curved into an abstract shape. It was, he thought at once, the One.
"Hey," he hollered, all prior discomfort gone. His yell drew attention from all corners, which was exactly what he'd wanted. "Can I get some service around here?"
Hinata, the traitor, had yet to stop laughing.
"You didn't," she said, wide-eyed and giggling behind the protective cup of her hand. "Did you really call him that—what was it, again—McDiva?"
Sakura nodded miserably. "It isn't as though I planned on it—it just sort of came out. It's the name I know him by, you know. I can't keep calling him 'Hyuuga-sensei'—or I'd feel like I'm dating my teacher—and I'd never call him Neji until he expressly gave me permission to," she finished, wrinkling her nose at the thought.
"Well," Hinata began, still laughing, "you are dating your teacher, aren't you? Sort of, anyway."
Sakura threw her a baleful look.
"It makes the whole thing seem kind of taboo, even though it isn't. He's my mentor, not my teacher—there's a difference," she insisted, sipping at her tea.
"Right," Hinata said, looking anything but convinced. "In any case, you mentioned that you'd be seeing him again tonight?"
Sakura felt her cheeks warm. In an effort to hide the flush, she bent her head and fiddled with her teaspoon.
"Yes," she said softly. "It'll be nice to have good conversation again." At Hinata's knowing look, Sakura balked, and immediately tried to take back her words.
"Not that our conversations aren't just as good, Hinata-chan!"
Her friend laughed.
"I know, Sakura-chan. That wasn't why I was laughing. I just remember your telling me about another man in your life who gave you conversation which was just as good."
Sakura's brows furrowed as she settled back into her chair to consider it.
"I did," she asked uncertainly. "Who?"
Hinata looked nonplussed. "Uchiha-san, of course."
Sakura's eyes seemed to slide out of focus as she remembered.
"Of course," she echoed.
When she got home, Sakura rested. She'd hung her coat to dry before throwing herself face-first into her sofa. The lunch with Hinata had been an unusually tiring, if amusing, experience. She had only a few hours until her meeting—"or is it a date," she wondered aloud—with Neji. She attempted to while away her time by reading, but the words blurred in front of her.
She wondered if she was tired.
Her ruminations were interrupted by the sudden sound of knocking—the world again, she thought wryly. It was reminding her that she wasn't the only one in it.
Sakura answered the incessant knocking, and was surprised to see Naruto standing in front of her, a smile on his lips. He held a small bag in one hand, which Sakura could not help but glance at as she ushered him in from the cold. She recognized the logo on the outside of the bag—an obelisk inside a parallelogram, marked by three very familiar letters—as one that belonged to a world-class jeweler.
"Hi, Sakura-chan," he said cheerfully, as she took his scarf and coat. "Got any ramen? It's freezing outside; you should've seen it! My nose hairs had icicles on the end! Seriously! Also, that stupid bastard sent me over, and do you have ramen?"
Sakura eyed him critically. Underneath the jacket blinding neon yellow of his trench coat, and the sea-green of his scarf, Naruto was wearing a simple, short-sleeve white T-shirt and a well-tailored—but, decidedly well-worn—pair of blue jeans.
"Maybe you wouldn't be so cold if you layered up a bit more, hm? You're liable to catch any number of diseases walking out of your house dressed the way you did," she called to him, from where she was digging through her linen closet for a dry towel. She couldn't help but lecture him. Naruto seemed to inspire that in her—a maternal sort of concern that manifested itself in chiding words and—
"Well, should I get naked then? They say body heat's the best way to fight hypoglycemia."
Well, Sakura thought rather dismally, there goes that.
"Naruto," she said, fighting not to laugh. It wouldn't do to encourage him, after all. "I don't even know where to begin correcting you. But as I don't really feel up to talking about the role dehydration plays in hypothermia—hypoglycemia refers to a physical state in which the subject has a lower than normal level of sugar in his bloodstream, just so you know—I will leave the towel here," she said, placing it on her kitchen table, "and I'll look for some of your precious ramen in my pantry. Meanwhile, you try very hard to remember why you're here, all right?"
She took his silence as implied consent, and swept off before he could say anything more. Luckily, she'd had the foresight to restock her panty a few days prior, and while she wasn't normally the type to buy ramen in bulk—sodium was no doctor's best friend, after all—the sale prices she'd happened upon had been difficult to resist, and she'd succumbed to the urge to buy a few packs.
Now, a small stack of neon-colored packages of instant noodle—udon, broad, and a few soba varieties among them—stood at attention, ready to be cooked.
"What kind do you like," she yelled, so that her voice carried through the half-opened door of her kitchen.
"Uh…miso's fine," he said, sounding almost surprised. "You're the first person that's ever actually gotten up and cooked it for me. Usually, I have to storm my way past Sasuke-teme and the alarm he set up on his pantry door."
Ah, Sakura thought, that explains it.
"Well," she said aloud, "I'm no Sasuke-teme."
"I kind of figured that, Sakura-chan."
There was conversation as they waited for the water to boil, though admittedly, it was one-sided. Sakura found herself listening to Naruto's extemporaneous tirade about how irritating it was, waiting for the water to boil, and how if he were in charge of the scientific community, he'd make it his number one priority to "invent" water that boiled without fire. She took it all in with as much grace as she could—at the very least, she caught bits and pieces of it—and veered quickly out of his way when it came time to pour the water into the ramen noodles.
Sakura took a breath, and then, the plunge.
"So," she said, slowly, trying and failing to sound nonchalant—or, at the very least, like she was joking. "Sasuke doesn't feed you…" She trailed off, and waggled her eyebrows weakly.
Naruto gulped, and then, blanched.
"OK," he said, sounding very much like he was trying not to upchuck. "Can I just set this straight? That repressed bastard and I—we aren't gay. Um, at least not for each other—or like, at all," Naruto said hastily, correctly interpreting the look on her face as one of disbelief. He took another swig of his ramen broth, and wiped his chin with a proffered napkin, before continuing. "Even if he's only had, like, five dates in the last decade, they've all been with women. I just wanted you to know that. I know you've walked in on a few things that might make you think, um, otherwise, but I swear to you, Sasuke and I are both straight."
Sakura looked dazed, but recovered with admirable quickness.
"Sorry," she said, clearly flustered. "I didn't mean to offend. It's just…well, you know."
"Yeah," Naruto said, watching her flailing fit with unconcealed interest. "We haven't given you much cause to believe me, I know but—"
"I'm hearing it straight from the horse's mouth," she finished. She paused, and then, "Or well, you know—so to speak."
She racked her mind frantically for a segue into something more appropriate to discuss, before it, and her eyes, settled on the small bag Naruto had carried in with him.
"Fancy," she said, in an effort to break the awkward silence. "For anyone special?"
Naruto followed her gaze down to the bag he still held, and stared it for a moment, as though he'd quite forgotten it were there.
"Oh right! Here, Sakura-chan! This is for you."
He handed it to her with little aplomb, and Sakura took it numbly in her state of Disbelief. He'd gotten her jewelry?
"He says to consider it an advance for your assistance, or whatever—for giving him, uh, inspiration. Or something," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head, a decidedly sheepish look replacing the brilliant smile. "I forgot what he wanted me to say, to be honest."
Sakura smiled at him, charmed despite herself.
"No worries," she said. "I won't tell. I'm pretty good with secrets, you know."
"Yeah," Naruto said, giving her a sideways glance. "The bastard mentioned something like that."
This last went unheard as Sakura untied the simple bow, and then lifted the protective cotton away from her the top of the box. There, curled under the cotton, she found a strand of milk-white pearls fastened by a golden clasp. It looked to be a choker, but until she wore it, she couldn't be sure.
"You got me pearls," she said, her hands shaking as she held them. "You got me pearls."
The grin on Naruto's face was so wide, she worried, for a single impossible moment, that it might split his face in two.
"No—that bastard, Sasuke, did. He got you a pearl necklace," he said, snickering at his own private joke. Sakura felt her face flush in answer.
"You," she said solemnly, "are a pervert of the highest order. Did you know that?"
He nodded vigorously, looking thoroughly pleased with himself.
"And," he said proudly, "I'm not even a little ashamed."
"They're lovely," Sakura said, admiringly, not noticing the way Naruto's chest puffed a little at the indirect compliment. Her next sentence though, took him for a loop.
"But I can't keep them."
"Can't keep them," he echoed blankly. "Why not?"
Sakura gave him a small—and, Naruto fancied, not just a bit sad—smile.
"This isn't part of the deal," she said softly. "He doesn't owe me anything except repayment of my loans. As lovely as the thought was—and I suspect, I have you to thank, more than him—I can't keep these."
Naruto's face fell in a way a rejected suitor's might.
"But—these are from him. Sasuke-teme insisted! I swear it! He said…they'd match your eyes? Or something. Yes."
Despite herself, Sakura laughed. Naruto looked relieved.
"With his talent, I'm sure he did."
"I'm serious though," Naruto said, more somber now. "These are yours, Sakura-chan. He basically insisted that I go out and buy them for you—I mean, I was going to get you a fruit basket, but he told me to get you these. They're a thank you gift, Sakura-chan—and nothing less." (The lie was bitter in his mouth, but it was a small one.) At last, he nodded resolutely.
And, Sakura thought, a little ruefully, as she nodded in acceptance, nothing more.
After Naruto left, she had more time to think to herself, and for that Sakura was glad. He had, after all, given her much to think about.
The pearls hung like a weight around her neck, lovely against her skin. She'd always preferred them to diamonds. Sasuke—or, she suspected, Naruto—had exquisite taste.
Sakura was startled out of her preparations by the ringing of the door. She looked up at the clock on the wall in horror. It was only 6:30. Surely Hyuuga-sensei wasn't going to be this early. She strode to the door in careful steps, half-occupied with adjusting the fastener on her earrings.
It was, to her surprise, Sasuke's face that she saw through the peephole. Startled, she found herself opening the door with shaking hands before she'd even realized what she'd done.
Sakura opened the door to him in a swath of green, looking quite distinctly like the portrait of a lady. She was unfinished—her earrings were half-on, her hair was half-mussed.
He decided, in that moment, that she was lovely.
Her dress, though, told him more than that. She was meeting the neurosurgeon tonight, he realized. That was—good. Yes, good, he decided. Exactly what he'd wanted.
She twirled a bit, spinning so the dress swirled around her in gossamer tribute.
"Well, how do I look," she asked, smiling so brightly it all but hurt to look at her. "The balloon hem is supposed to draw attention away from the cleavage I don't have. Is it working?"
Sasuke looked at her, in the mint-green strapless dress, the black peep-toe pumps, the matching clutch, the beaded pearl necklace—the one he'd given her.
The one she was wearing to dinner with another man.
"You look," he began, almost awkwardly. "You look…very satisfactory."
She regarded him with quiet eyes.
"I'm wearing your necklace," she said, rather unnecessarily. He hadn't been able to take his eyes off of it—off of her—since she'd let him into her home.
He swallowed, licked his suddenly dry lips, and turned away from her.
"Yes," he said. Suddenly, he felt the vaguest hint of regret that, indeed, he wasn't Prince-material. "It suits you. For once," he said, as he recovered himself, "that idiot came through. I guess the fruit basket would have been a bad fit, after all."
At those words, Sasuke noticed her smile stiffen, the softness of its previous incarnation decidedly absent. "Is something wrong," he asked.
"You—you were going to get me a fruit basket?" He wondered at the slightest hint of disappointment in her eyes.
"Yes," he said, cautiously. "Didn't he mention that?"
At that, she opened her eyes again, and smiled at him. The look she was giving him now was reminiscent of the one she'd given him at a past meeting—carefully, cautiously distant, and civil, instead of warm.
Any response she might have given him was interrupted by the sudden sound of her doorbell.
It seemed the doctor had arrived. Sasuke looked up at the clock—it was precisely 7:00, and he was just in time.
Sakura did not immediately run to answer the door, did not rush to invite the other man inside. She was looking at him in that peculiar way he hadn't yet gotten used to. Sasuke shook his head, and broke her gaze.
"I'm in the way," he said quietly. "If you could show me to your back entrance, I'll leave that way."
She shook her head.
"Don't be silly," she said, her voice husky—whether it was with anticipation, or with sadness, Sasuke did not know. "You aren't in the way. If you'd like, you can meet him—you'll need to anyway, won't you? For your book?"
"Only if this works out," he said, without pause, as though the words had come before he'd even thought of them. She turned away from him to look at the door she still hadn't answered, but Sasuke did not miss the brief flash of hurt in her eyes. Was it something I said, he thought.
"It will," came the reply, steely and oddly determined. She made her way to the door and opened it, Sasuke following at a snail's pace behind her.
By now, it had been close to ten minutes since her…date had rung the bell, and Sasuke was allowed his first look at the man he'd have to make her hero.
At the sight of him, Sasuke's first impulse was to laugh. Thankfully, he was able to control himself.
The man standing on the other side of the door was, in his estimation, decidedly effeminate. He wore his long hair in a low ponytail—lower and longer than even Itachi, whose hair had been, and indeed, still was their mother's constant source of fretting. Mikoto Uchiha had been raised to think men with long hair, unsavory characters, though upon meeting Shikamaru, she'd made modifications to that generalization (though, Sasuke noted, she hadn't stopped fussing over Shikamaru's ponytail on the few occasions he came around to her home). It was an attitude she'd attempted to pass on to Itachi with limited success.
With Sasuke, she'd succeeded in spades.
Sasuke held back his sneer as he continued his perusal. He was dressed immaculately, from what Sasuke could only call a headband—at this, Sasuke did sneer—which seemed to blend into his hair, to his three-piece suit, down to his polished black shoes. The man gave off a decidedly patrician air—the same one Sasuke's own father did—and despite himself, Sasuke had to concede that this was a man in a clear position of authority.
Still, he thought. It didn't mean he had to like him.
"Is there a reason you're staring at me?"
Sasuke arched his brow at the unspoken challenge in the other man's voice.
"There's not much else to look at," he drawled, "as you're taking up the entire doorway."
The other man's pale eyes narrowed.
Sakura had the sudden sinking feeling that she was standing in the middle of an old-school Western showdown. She half-expected Sasuke and Hyuuga-sensei to strap on the spurs, and pull out their pistols.
Thinking to prevent what she'd privately christened a "manshow," she smoothly inserted herself between them, as a sort of buffer. Smiling winningly, she turned first to Sasuke, and then to her mentor.
"Hyuuga-sensei," she said sweetly, throwing a glare at Sasuke for his cheek, "I'd like for you to meet my—"
Sakura broke off for a moment. She hadn't yet answered the question of what he was to her.
"This is Uchiha Sasuke," she said instead. "And Sasuke, this is my mentor, Hyuuga-sensei."
"Charmed," Sasuke said. And then, "I've heard a lot about you."
"Delighted, I'm sure," came the reply, though the speaker sounded anything but. "And funny enough, I can't say the same. Sakura hasn't even mentioned you."
"Well," Sasuke said, "she talks to me quite extensively. About many things." The implication was clear.
"We all make mistakes," said her mentor, almost graciously.
Sakura clapped her hands together, and tried desperately to pretend as though they both meant what they said in their greetings, and that their last two verbal exchanges had never happened.
"Hyuuga-sensei is the Head Neurosurgeon at Konoha General Hospital," she said, as though Sasuke had asked. "And Sasuke is—"
"Wait," Neji interrupted. "I think I recognize that name. You're a writer of some sort, aren't you?" Sakura watched in growing dread as Sasuke's nodded, and Neji smirked. "I thought so—I saw the Times review for your last book on big theory. I didn't know the critics could be so caustic."
Sakura saw Sasuke tense, before he recovered himself.
"I didn't know you doctors had time to read," Sasuke said silkily. "I thought the good ones were all too busy performing surgery to bother with things like book reviews—particularly when the subject matter is clearly out of their professional and academic sphere."
"Well, I didn't actually read your book, you understand," Neji said slowly, as though Sasuke could not. "Just the review. And just for your general information, doctors who are skilled enough to pick and choose their cases, do make time to read worthwhile texts, written by worthwhile authors. I simply can't bear fools—in life, or in literature."
"How odd," countered Sasuke. "Your mother did."
Before Neji could reply, Sakura laughed nervously, interrupted their…banter, and pretended that their introduction evening hadn't just degenerated into a 'your momma' joke.
"Well, as pleasant as this has been," she said, dutifully ignoring both Neji's and Sasuke's incredulous looks, "Neji and I have a date to keep. So, we'll be going now."
"Are you planning on leaving him alone in your home," Neji said, sounding as though the idea of it was anything but wise.
Sakura shook her head vigorously, but Sasuke interjected before she could respond.
"No," he replied, "I'll be going to my penthouse now. Sakura, you'll meet me later this week for dinner. We have a lot to discuss." With that, he stepped out into her hallway, sidestepped Neji—Sakura could only be relieved that he hadn't purposely nudged him—and was gone.
"What an odious man," Neji said, as soon as Sasuke's footsteps had faded. "I wonder why you're even acquainted with him."
Sakura rubbed the back of her head, and giggled a little, almost hysterically.
"That's a story I'll tell you another time," she said quickly, recalling her first meeting with Sasuke. Like on the fourth of Never, she thought privately to herself.
Neji accepted her explanation with a nod of his head. They walked in silence to the elevator, and then outside of her building. It was then that Neji chose to tell her about their plans for the evening.
"I've made us reservations at a Thai restaurant I enjoy frequenting on my rare days away from the hospital," Neji said, as though he'd rehearsed it. "Not only is it a favorite of mine, it is also conveniently located within walking distance to your apartment. After dinner, we will enjoy a night time stroll to the nearby ice-cream factory, where we will learn about the creation of this cold confection via a guided tour." He paused for a beat, and then—
"I'm told it is quite a fascinating process, and I, personally, have always enjoyed learning the mechanics behind the foodstuffs I eat."
Sakura was silent. After a moment, she smiled uncertainly at him, and coughed into her hand.
"I'm lactose intolerant," she said, almost apologetically. "I can only have frozen yogurt."
There was a brief lull in conversation, and Sakura watched as Neji considered this new piece of information. Then, he continued his spiel.
"They're expecting us precisely two hours after our dinner reservation," he said succinctly, as though he hadn't heard her. "If we speed-walk, we can be early."
"Did you hear me," she asked.
Neji leveled a glance at her.
"Of course," he said.
Sakura doubted this, but didn't say anything else. The rest of the walk to the restaurant was spent in silence, and she could only wonder at the night to come.
So—Neji and Sasuke are totally off to a good start right? BFFs forever? They will bake cookies together and braid each other's hair, and talk about Foucault over red wine, and discuss malignant gliomas over tea and biscuits.
So this took an obscene amount of time to write. I realize that. In the mean time, I got the most amazing reviews, some with speculations that made me giggle (insaneteacup, I'm looking at you!). In any case, I hope you'll forgive my lapse, and tell me what you think of this latest installment. :)