Tsunade stared numbly at her hands. The procedure that Neji had insisted so heatedly upon had, against the odds, been sucessful. Tenten would live. She would not, however, ever again be a kunoichi of Konoha in more than name.
Moving briskly to the sink at the back of the operating suite, Tsunade twisted the nobs until the flow was scalding hot. With a grimace at the pinkened water as it sluiced away down the drain, she began to regret. She should not have allowed the Hyuuga heir to railroad her into such hasty action.
Setting her tired hands onto the cool, dully gleaming counter Tsunade sighed roughly to herself. She flicked one last look at the somehow diminished form of her former-ANBU patient. Distantly, the medic began to recall what she knew of the young woman. Tenten had, for all intents and purposes , been a model nin-one who had been steadily climbing rank without the distinctions most ANBU possessed.
The pale thing lying only yards away, breathing shallowly had no clan affiliation. No bloodlimit, not even a surname. She had no extreme reserve of chakra to rely upon or a distinguished legacy of excellence as a ninja. Tenten had been something else. A civilian-born kunoichi who had achieved something like ANBU rank only to have it taken from her.
Tsunade knew the foremost blame belonged to an Akatsuki member who had crippled her chakra paths and shredded bone and muscle alike. As a hokage she reasoned that the young woman had accepted her mission, the subsequent altercation and the consequences of it too. But the result was no less bitter on her tongue.
Death might have been kinder for Tenten, Tsunade thought. Moving tiredly from the room, the medic could not find it in herself to give the order to notify next-of-kin. It was small of her, she acknowledged, but not beneath her. So she walked on, mentally preparing to bury herself in paperwork. Maybe then she'd banish the slowly building sense of guilt.
Sasuke wanted to swallow the word as it left his lips. Loaded as it was with a sense of something that he couldn't or wouldn't name. Some emotion weighed the tense uttering until it was so heavy it dropped like a stone between them. The small space between them seemed charged. Electrified. Something in his gut told him this was a turning point. More so than anything they had said before.
They had both been looking backward until now. Searching in vain for someone the other had grown out of. And now?
"I changed. I got stronger. I grew up. And I'm not sorry. So I'm NOT going to pretend to be that useless little girl so you can pretend you're still the boy I fell in love with!"
Sakura had accused him so cuttingly. Had he been punishing her for being something new? Someone stronger than the slip of a kunoichi he had left behind stood before him now. He knew that. How could he not? He was so physically close to the girl he thought he had known, only to be forced to see that she was someone older and wiser.
Sasuke was silent for long moments. He could not find a way to tell Sakura that he. . .missed young Sakura without belittling what she had become.
"I am not," he hesitated for the words that would convey what he meant, "disappointed that you have changed." He focused his gaze upon Sakura's as earnestly has he was able.
Her fey-green eyes searched his face rapidly, trying to catch any micro-expression that might hint what he meant.
Sasuke felt a foul curse build on his tongue. He had not wanted to be cryptic. But he stood overwhelmed by proximity and circumstance in equal parts.
The two Sakuras were incomparable in his mind. They were of two separate realms, divided by the years that played out between sun-soaked childhood and reluctant adulthood. The younger was a creature of light and laughter and something else. Something that had half preserved the memories, gilding them into something more than they were. The bad or mediocre smudged in his mind untilgenin Sakura was something of a fairytale in his head. Delicate and finespun and impossible. Wholly innocent.
How could he reconcile that creature, harmless and naive, with the kunoichi who had felled a hunter-nin with his own trap? Sasuke watched her feminine fingers as they trembled in front of her lips where they had frozen in unvoiced realization. How could he confuse this Sakura with the child he had known?
Sasuke couldn't form the thoughts that spun in his mind. The thought that she was simply not what he had expected felt like a slight to her. He had, in the brief respites he allowed himself, always entertained the thought that Sakura would at best become a chuunin. Bubbly, female and passable. Respectable without being overly laudable. It did not change the undeniable protection he extended her, or justify the worry he always seemed to bear for her. The imagined version of an older Sakura that had fluttered around the edges of his thoughts had simply been nothing like reality.
"You're not as I expected." He knows they are the wrong words, even as he speaks them.
Sakura's expression draws and darkens. Her pink brows are dipped low as she crosses her arms, almost protectively, over her abdomen and she spits, "Yes, well, I lost my reverence for your opinion a long time ago."
"I-" Sasuke felt his jaw creak as he snapped his mouth shut. He wasn't blurting anymore partially formed thoughts. Honesty seemed to negate his innate skill for making things cryptic or altogether misleading. So he plucked the first whole, honest thought that arrived in his mind and slowly enunciated, "I never lost my respect of yours."
Her features relaxed, far slower than they had shuttered, but the defensive front melted surely enough.
Encouraged, Sasuke forayed once again into an explanation. "I did not expect," he frowned and rallied, "I didn't consider that you would change at all."
Sakura's face was smooth as glass as she said without malice, "Time didn't stop when you left the Village, Sasuke."
He wanted to snap a surly reply. But Sakura wasn't being cruel, Sasuke knew. She just looked tired, boneweary of the emotions that were bearing down on them both. She had borne whatever the current between them was, alone, for far longer than he. She hadn't frozen it out, barred it from her thoughts like he had. Sakura had lived with whatever she felt for him every single day and for that, Sasuke respected her enough to reign in his temper.
Something heavy hit the floor and Sasuke vaguely registered that it was the nin-pack she had been clinging to for their entire exchange. Then he realized why. In the depths of his thoughts, he had listed forward. His brow was tipped against hers, his hands encircling her tense upper arms. Keeping her close. It was so hard to pin the essence of her down, he thought. But so easy to hold her in place.
The steady puffs of her breath grazed his throat and made him brave. Or reckless. Or both. "I know time didn't stop." Sasuke felt her breathing hitch and swallowed then repeated. "I am not disappointed that you changed." Tightening the grasp he had on her a shade, he confessed. "I regret that you had to, at all."
Because with young Sakura, Sasuke the avenger had a purpose. He could protect her, she could stare up at him with awe and they could be compatible in at least that way. But now? What use was he? She needed little protection and she had lost the headlong worship that had once characterized their interaction. It stung him to wonder when and how the change had taken place. Where had he been?
Why hadn't he felt a shift in the air? The thought was admittedly circular and whimsical and useless. But it did not keep Sasuke from wondering. When had the singular constant, true thing in his childhood changed and how could he not have known? Was he fighting or sleeping or reluctantly thinking of her in a quiet moment? The irony would be fitting. That the idolized copy of her might have been flitting about in his mind's eye when she had to lose the very innocence that he was remembering.
And how many close calls had come and gone? She must have bled and feared and cried without him. Without his physical presence and without his knowing. And, for the first time, Sasuke acknowledged that it bothered him. She had fought and might have died and he never would have known. Not for months or years, until he heard a stray word among shinobi or ran across a Konoha native or nin.
The now-familiar agitation that this new Sakura stirred inside him rose to new heights. It was frustrating. The restless energy that plagued him when he thought of all the faceless threats that she had faced down and defeated. I know time didn't stop, I know your life went on and I hate it. I wasn't there and maybe you didn't even miss me. You were alone and vulnerable and-
A ghost of a sensation skates along his jaw and Sasuke's eyes snap open. He hadn't realized that he had screwed them shut, but Sakura had. And, being Sakura, she had known just what to do to redirect him and head off the mounting anger.
For a moment, his boiling blood is forgotten. All Sasuke can see in the world are her tangled-at-the-corners lashes and green eyes. They're falling out of focus and drawing nearer at once and Sasuke knows logically that it means he must be leaning down to her. He freezes. Because he knows this will only happen once and he can't fathom the idea that he might drive her away with it. This volatile concoction of emotions that have formed a catalyst for change. It's unrepeatable. Their tempers and egos and combined pride will never concede a second time.
This was that precipice that he had sensed. Where things would change for good, but not necessarily for the better. For a moment, Sasuke entertains the possibilty of moving away but he can't force himself to really consider it. Going back now is not an option. The past between them is worn thin. Now there is only the tenuous prospect of a future, one Sasuke would share with her if only she permits it.
Sakura can't hear for the beating of her heart or the rush of her breath from her lips. Sasuke is hovering just inches away and she isn't sure quite what to make of the curious quiet that has fallen over her mind. He is looking at her with mixed intention and hesitation. This time he is asking and not taking, Sakura realizes. The kiss he means to give her isn't a branding, isn't demeaning or a pointed action to herd her thoughts. It is affection for the sake of it and he's giving her a choice to accept it or not. And that, Sakura thinks, makes all the difference.
She presses forward a scant inch. This far, no further. For once, she thinks, he will come to her.
And he does. Sasuke is there in an instant, and it's not like anything because it's more than she might have ever imagined or hoped for. She can feel the simple pressure of his mouth over hers and the warm press of his hands at her waist. It's right.
The precarious bubble of emotion that had been trapped in her chest for as long as she had denied her feelings for Sasuke ruptured. Love requited felt like liquid sunshine rushing through her veins.
She's smiling into their kiss, Sasuke realizes. And it's right, not what he would have guessed but when had he ever been able to predict her? His thoughts are rushing together and losing coherency but he doesn't care. Because that's Sakura sighing against his mouth. It's Sakura looping her hands over his shoulders and pushing trembling fingers into his hair. Neatly trimmed nails are tracing nonsense patterns on his scalp and he could shiver. Then she nicks his ear lobe and he does.
A cascading ripple of feeling starts at his head and washes through his body to his feet. The contact is like a detonation.
He feels his restraint slip and in a flurry of motion, she's tugged off of her feet. Sasuke groans as he hitches her up by the sweet little tuck of her waist. Her hips are rounded and feminine just like the legs she wraps around him in response. His sense of space is probably a little skewered because he was aiming for the couch but he'll settle for the doorway. Sasuke knows he's pressing against her and maybe they're moving a little fast but he can't bring himself to pull away from her swollen-lipped kisses to say anything meaningful.
Sakura, for her part, is making up for lost time. Her hands are roving his features and contours and she wants to be able to reconstruct him perfectly in her mind with any given sense when she's finished. His shoulders are thick and sturdy like oak, his hands fine-boned and capable. Musk and pine and mint on his breath roil into something that is distinctly Sasuke in her head. She's smiling and might be gasping little happy sounds as he moves on to her neck.
He seems to favor bare skin, Sakura thinks. He has run his heavy palms over every bit that's exposed on her upper body and is bent on exposing more. The brush of his fingertips at the hem of her shirt makes her squirm and tighten her grip on the hair at his nape. Sasuke interprets her permission and makes short work of raising the fabric to bunch over his wrists. Sakura is wondering if he's channeling his lightning nature or if the romantic sparkseveryone is always gushing about are real when Sasuke jerks into stillness.
She knows in the same instant that he has found her scar. The one that her greatest victory brought her, Sasori's mark upon her body. Because even when you're a medic nin and even if you're trained by Tsunade herself, there is only so much Sakura could do after being nearly bisected. It's a raised ridge a couple of inches under her belly button, pink and pearly and only really noticeable in the right light. . .or by touch.
Sasuke is running his fingers over it, pausing then repeating the process. Almost as if he doesn't really believe it's there. He's dropped to his knees, originally to examine the anomaly further, but now it looks strangely repentant. His face is twisted with more than Sakura has seen from him in a long time. Anger, which isn't a foreign thing to his features and a more fleeting thing. Regret, she realizes. It's regret she sees flagging in his features as he stares at her scarred belly. He looks tragic, Sakura thinks. And it's sad that he looks so familiar with the whole idea of being sad and angry and helpless at once.
She can't stand to see him prostrate and crippled by ineffectiveness, so Sakura slides down to join him in kneeling. Silently she guides his hand to its twin on her back. She feels his breath leave him in a rush. His fingers are alternating between the faint scar and the bumps of her spine when he grits, "Who?"
"He's dead. I killed him." Her voice is calm but it does nothing to sooth Sasuke.
He simply presses his hand flatly over the old wound, as if to erase it willfully. Again, he demands, "Who, Sakura?"
She hesitates. But she knows with deep certainty that this isn't a matter she can sidestep with him. At last, she answers, "Sasori of the Red Sand. The blade was poisoned and I was drained of chakra." That explains her general shortage of additional scars, of course. She rarely was desperate enough to be at the dregs of her reserve at the close of a battle. But Sakura stops herself short when she begins to form an apology. She had won and she lived to tell of it and that was more than many of his other opponents could say.
Sasuke traces the scars once, twice more each then lets her shirt fall back into place. Without another word he gathers her and stands. As he turns and carries her to the bedroom, Sakura cannot help herself.
She looks directly into his dark eyes and whispers, "Sasuke-kun." I love you with all my heart.
Sasuke nods with a conviction that he never thought he would possess again. He knows that she still loves him and it has altered something in him, shifted something in his chest that is probably his soul. She has lent him the light that he never knew he lost and he can only tighten his grip on her knees and slim shoulder in response.
She feels a warm breath shake free of his lips at her temple. The words are nearly lost to her pink tresses, but Sakura faintly hears Sasuke murmur, "I've missed that."
Update! :D Not an uber long one, but it's mostly SS. Adding further after or before the SS felt wrong, so here it is.
Thanks for reading and hugs to my patient, amazing readers.
Reviews are lovely.