title: mid-fall
pairing: SasuSaku
summary: "I get to be mixed-up and messed-up and jumbled and confused. I get to not know what I want. This is recovery—and it takes time. It doesn't have to come all at once, and it'll never be what it used to be. And maybe that's OK. Maybe I get to have everything."

for: I've decided to kill two birds with one stone here, and combine my idea for this one-shot with a few sixpence requests I still owe.

This will probably happen again.

And so, to o.O-NinjaNita-O.o, and RosePetalPrincess, who both requested SasuSaku, and sakuraxkisu, who wanted the prompt tomato ketchup—this one's for you guys.

notes: I blame this on the season. Spring just does things to me. Conceived the idea while riding the train, and looking at the trees.

I rather miss the scent of autumn.

Anyway, this is my take on a SasukeReturns!fic. It's canon—mostly—ish. You can argue that it's OOC, so I'll add that too. I tend to be over-dramatic, as you guys can see from reading my other pieces. I think this is one instance when I'm glad for my new style. It made the flow infinitely easier.

Many many thanks to Epiff Annie for reading this through, and for building up my ego, even when she didn't need to. Or really, even when she shouldn't have.

I can be sort of insufferable.

The lines I open each part with are not mine. More information about that is in the disclaimer.

Finally, the fifth part of this piece references another of my oneshots—chasing pavements, to be precise. You don't have to read it to understand, but it might help clarify what Sakura's referring to.

disclaimer: Naruto, and all associated elements, do not belong to me. Also, the lines I open each part with are not mine. They come from Pablo Neruda's Tonight I can write the saddest lines, T.S Eliot's The Wasteland, John Donne's A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, Sylvia Plath's Daddy, ThomasGray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, e.e. cummings' you being in love, and Elizabeth Bishop's O breath, respectively.


i. tonight, I can write the saddest lines


It was mid-fall when he returned.

The crowd was restless. She felt the energy in the air—an almost-tangible entity that annoyed her the moment she'd gotten to the gate. Naruto's words had been short, succinct.

They saw him at the borders.

There had been no hesitation. Again, as she had before, she'd dropped it—the grocery list sitting lonely and forlorn on her kitchen counter, the laundry lying undone on the planes of her bedroom floor, the medical text she'd been studying, abandoned for another day.

She'd strapped on her sandals, hopping in her haste, grabbed her weapons pouch—a habit, too late to outgrow.

(She'd left her guard, and that was habit too, but only with him.)

There were a few others in the crowd she recognized. Kiba. Hinata. Two flashes of green one shade darker than her eyes told her that Lee and his teacher, the inimitable Gai-sensei, were here too.

For once, there were no rainbows.

She let her eyes linger, and then refocused when she saw Hyuuga Neji. His white eyes were hard, flinty.


Hastily, Sakura moved on to safer pastures, relaxing when she noticed Ino and her teammates standing a few paces away. She opened her mouth to call out a greeting—one took comfort in the familiar, especially in the face of the unknown—but stopped cold at the look on Shikamaru's face.

She thought, distantly, that it was the closest to hatred anyone would ever see on the face of someone whose default expression—or lack thereof—was "apathetic."

Wincing, she closed her eyes, willing the hurt to fade. He, more than anyone, had his reasons. The failed retrieval mission had been his first taste of leadership, and to lose the way he had…she could not blame Shikamaru.

She could not find it in herself to blame him, either.

(So instead she blamed herself—not enough, never enough.)

Just then, the object of—

(what exactly, she wondered? He'd been everything—her dreams, her fantasies, her obsessions—at least once.

He'd been everything, period.)

her musings came into view, and she let out the breath she had not realized she was holding, her hands clenched into tight fists at her side.

He was gaunt, and lean, and walked with the same slow gait— measured half-steps that never faltered in their rhythm—hands at his side. He never wasted his movements, had never been one for embellishment, or unnecessary ornamentation. His plain white shirt—open to all his many scars—was testament to that, and hid nothing that he did not mind showing. The black pants he wore hung loose on the line of his hips, and the medic in her frowned at his lack of self-preservation. He was all angles and sharp edges—there was not a shade of softness to be found.

Even his hair—the same strands she'd dreamt of running her fingers through as a child—was still styled in the same haphazard arrangement that would have looked awkward on anyone else but him.

Sakura would have killed for his composure.

Swallowing past the sudden lump in her throat, she stepped back and out of his line of vision, slaking her thirst from five meters farther than she'd been before. His brow remained unmarked, and she chuckled darkly. She'd constructed an image of him in her mind; a talisman for the lonely nights she'd been weak enough to need him. In it, his face had been heavily-lined by worry, a fitting recompense, she'd thought bitingly, for leaving her loving him. There would be dark circles around his eyes, his skin paling to the color of scattered ash.

Instead, she was presented with this. His skin remained smooth, unmarred by his experience—like a stone at the bottom of a riverbed that had its texture washed away by the ever-changing flow.

She paused, and directed her gaze to the one feature she'd been avoiding.

His eyes.

They were more slanted, she noticed absently, framed by lashes so dark and thick that under different circumstances, she would have been jealous. She wasn't looking for aesthetics, though. Not today.

There was nothing there.

No guilt, no remorse.

(No recognition, but then, she was used to that.)

No unshed tears waiting for a red shirt to absorb them—just the same limpid black pools that had almost ended her only two years ago, from the top of that crag.

Back then, she'd been overwhelmed. It had been the first she'd seen of him in two-and-a-half years.

Now, she was just tired.

She didn't really know what she expected from him when he finally decided to come back—certainly not a declaration of undying devotion, never, no. That would be silly, and wishful, and Sakura did not have much time for wishing, these days.

(The quiet part of her—the little twelve-year old she'd never truly managed to bury—whispered that she was lucky she'd had the time at all.

Some hadn't.)

As he walked past, she followed the line of his neck down to his back—tense, she noticed now that he was near, full of knots—where she knew the angry black marks of the curse-seal resided.

Suddenly, he paused, pivoted slowly.

His eyes fell on her, piercing through the throng of the madding crowd, and she knew she'd dream of him that night.

The leaves had fallen weeks before, and with them, her cover.


ii. and April is the cruelest month


Sakura kept herself carefully busy. There were missions from the desk, and patients at the hospital, and training with Tsunade-shishou in the afternoons, and ramen with Naruto most evenings, and sparring with Sai and Kakashi-sensei on the weekends, and sporadic shopping sessions with Ino, and—

"He asked about you, you know."

It had been seven months.

She turned green eyes on him, carefully meeting his guarded stare with her own.

"Has he," she replied, as though she were only moderately interested in the response, as though the possibility hadn't been running itself ragged through her mind in the spare moments she tried desperately to avoid keeping.

As though she hadn't seen him—caught glimpses of him in the market place, in the apothecary, in the training grounds—as though she didn't run home every time to put her red-eyed demon to rest.

As though she hadn't felt his eyes on her.

Naruto shifted in his seat, but did not drop his gaze. So stubborn, she thought fondly, as she watched him take another messy bite of his beloved ramen.

"Well, sort of. He asked who healed him after the interrogation sessions," Naruto said, voice garbled by the slide of wet noodles down his throat.

"Ah. Not the same thing, then." She struggled to keep her voice carefully free of any inflection.

Naruto dropped his chopsticks into the empty bowl, and turned to face her. He was taller now, and tan. Blond, and obnoxious. Mouth usually stretched into a loud, white grin.

Not today.

"Sakura-chan…I'm not good at these kinds of games. You know that."

"Well, it's a good thing I'm not playing any games, isn't it?" She sipped her broth, serenely. Naruto would have believed it, had the sight of her white knuckles not given her away.

Of course, the barely repressed trembling didn't quite help her case either, but he figured it was in his best interest not to mention that.

He wasn't stupid. He knew how hard it had been for her.

Well, maybe he didn't know exactly—the dynamics between Sasuke and Sakura had always been a little too complicated for him to truly understand, and only recently had he started to accept them.

But he could guess. Naruto had always been a pretty good guesser.

"Look. I don't understand why you just won't—"

"Won't what," she said, interrupting him harshly. "Won't give in? Won't see him?"

"He's your teammate!"

"He's nothing! Nothing, Naruto!" She pushed herself away from her kitchen table, and hated the feel of tear-tracks forming on her cheek.

Battle scars, she'd called them once—a testament to all her past mistakes.

He'd been the cause of so many.

Naruto was looking at her now, his horror at making her cry warring with his conviction that what she was doing was wrong. Avoiding Sasuke was wrong. A teammate is a teammate, he thought doggedly, even if they didn't want to be. And wasn't this what she'd wanted?

Yes, he had run away.

Yes, he had hurt them.

Yes, they'd almost died—more than once—trying to get him back.

But it was over. They had made their amends—well, at least he and Sasuke had.


And he knew it wouldn't be easy. He knew that it would never be the same. But after talking to him—and beating him into the ground, he remembered, with no small amount of unholy glee—Naruto knew Sasuke wouldn't be going anywhere, five-year village arrest or not.

He was here to stay.

Sakura needed to know that too, but she wouldn't if she never talked to him.

He opened his mouth to make one last plea—at least, for today, anyway—but she stopped him with one hand.

"Look. I know this is important to you—"

"It's important to you too, Sakura-chan! I know it is! That's why I don't get why you don't just—"

"—but I'm not the same, anymore, Naruto. I don't have time for any of that. I'm trying to put this all behind me, and—"

"Well, I'm trying to fix us, Team 7, and you—"

"I don't need you to fix us!"

For a while, the only sound was Sakura's ragged breathing. Naruto looked at her, wide-eyed, and did nothing to stop her when she continued to rant. He wondered how long she had let it build.

"I'm so tired, Naruto! You will never understand! I know you need him. I know you need to put us all back together. It's what you do. But I can't—I just—Can't I be enough? This once? Can I be enough for you? Do you need him, Naruto? Do you need us all back together? Because he haunts me. I hear him, all the time, when I falter. And then, I think about…I-I gave him what I had—everything. He didn't need me then. He doesn't need me now. Him asking about me, indirectly or whatever—it doesn't change anything. And I can't do it anymore. I can't, I can't. And I won't. I don't need you to fix us," she repeated, her words so hollow and hopeless that he cringed.

Sakura slammed her fist, upsetting her bowl and causing it to topple over the edge of the table. She closed her eyes, but when the tinny sound of broken shards failed to reach her ears, she opened them hesitantly. Naruto had caught it before it hit the floor.

She sighed, silently thanking him, but unwilling to give in.

Not yet. She wasn't ready. She was worried—thrilled, the long-unheard Inner Sakura corrected, her whispered syllables dripping disgust at her cowardice—that she never would be.

"I'm not a damsel-in-distress, anymore. He's seen to that." She laughed, but the sound lacked humor.

"I don't need you to rescue me."


iii. so let us melt, and make no noise


They had been betrayed.

That was the only explanation Sakura could think of, as she ran, fleet-footed and light, through the dark throngs of the forest near the borders of fallen Sound. One man down—injured, she corrected herself, with a little bit of gratitude—and she was already down to a third of her reserves. She hazarded a glance back, and looked toward her captain. The mask took a little getting used to, she thought uneasily.

He nodded once. Twice.

She allowed herself to breathe, as she felt his chakra dissipate, and saw the pale eyes through holes in his mask.

Safe, at least for the moment.

After their make-shift camp had been set up, and their captain walked off to scout, she walked to where Tenten was lying prone. A newly healed gash ran along the length of one arm, leaving the skin an angry pink. Sakura inspected it carefully.

"Is it all right?"

The other girl's voice was steady, but tight. Restrained. She was still in pain.

"It will be fine, for now. I've removed as much of the poison as I can. We'll take another look as soon as we get back home."

The brunette nodded.


Sakura opened her mouth to reply, but stopped.

The air was changing.

Behind her, Tenten had risen—shaky, but scrolls in hand.

A light thump to her right confirmed her suspicions.

They weren't alone.

Without warning, a phalanx of enemy shinobi attacked.

There were eight of them, she thought, as she dodged a kunai ready to slice through her heart. An easy match for three of Konoha's elite.

Or rather, it would have been, had one not been injured, and another drained.

She ducked the blade of a malevolent katana, and came up swinging, striking fast, and hard. Her opponent grunted with the impact, and smiled grimly. The ones she'd fought—those who'd lived, anyway—usually knew better than to let her land another hit.

Finishing him with a clean swipe across the throat—fighting down the nausea at the unease she still felt; she was a med-nin, and the thought of taking lives instead of saving them had never been a concept she wanted to master, pursuit of strength notwithstanding—she looked to her teammates. Neji seemed to be doing all right—and looking unruffled, as usual, she thought rather uncharitably—and Tenten—

Tenten was down.

She thought she saw Neji jerk with the realization, but no. He was too distracted to assist his teammate—he had four of his own to contend with.

Chauvinistic bastards, she thought, viciously—gratefully.

Without another moment's hesitation, she lunged, and dispatched two with a handful of well-aimed, poison-tipped senbon. A trick, Sakura thought ruefully, as she kneeled to get a better look at the damage, that Tenten had taught her.

Her face was a bloodied mess, and one of her eyes had swollen shut. Running her glowing-green hands down the length of her body, Sakura scanned her for internal injuries. She worried her bottom lip between her teeth. There were a few broken ribs that, judging from Tenten's uneven pants, were interfering with her breathing. Sakura decided to work on those first, concentrating her chakra, and fighting against the strain it took to keep healing when she was already so weary. She felt the tissues knitting themselves together under her energy's jerky guidance, and sighed. There were a few minor lacerations on her legs, but those could wait.

She braced herself up check on Neji, staggering a bit.

The blow from behind was unexpected, and she cried out once. In the clamor of voices that followed, she heard only notes. She felt Neji's hands catch her before she succumbed to the calming void.


When she came to, she was greeted by the white walls she'd grown up in. The smell of anti-septic permeated the air, and she blinked her tired eyes blearily. There were splotches of colors everywhere—shades of white, red, blue, yellow, orange that ran together until she didn't know where one began and one ended.

Flowers, she realized dazedly. They had sent her flowers.

"That…was incredibly stupid of you."

She whipped her head to the side of the bed, wincing when the movement made her head throb that much harder. Instinctively, her hand went for the weapon that wasn't on her night stand, a hand covering her own as she grappled the empty air.

"I thought I taught you better than that."

She closed her eyes, and stopped.


The infamous Copy-nin mock-winced, as though she'd struck him with a blow, and moved his hand from hers to cover his heart. With the other, he kept a firm grasp on his ever-present porn.

"I've said a million times before that there's no need for the honorific, Sakura-chan. I'm not your teacher, anymore."

And were you ever, she wanted to say peevishly, but it wasn't the time for such things.

"How are Neji and Tenten?"

Kakashi waved his hand dismissively.

"They're fine. Tsunade-sama fixed Tenten up as soon as she finished with you, and Neji didn't sustain any major injuries to begin with."

At that, he smirked—or at least, his eyes looked like he'd be smirking, anyway—and Sakura instantly went on her guard.

"What's so funny?"

"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking that Neji probably won't stay that way."

"What? Why?"

"Naruto will probably try to make him pay when he gets back from his mission."

It was times like these that Sakura truly hated her former teacher's ability to say nothing in so many words.

"For what?"

Kakashi sobered.

"When Neji brought you in, you were covered in the blood of the man who knocked you out. Evidently, Neji finished him with his ANBU sword." He chuckled. "They weren't pleased."

"They? Who're they?"

"Naruto and—"

Kakashi broke off, leaving Sakura wondering.

"I'll let him explain."

Before she could question him any further, he'd vanished in a puff of smoke, and Sasuke had stepped over the threshold and into her room. He stopped abruptly at the sight of her sitting up in bed, and stiffened as though he were expecting either a scathing diatribe or a torrent of tears. Seeing her so emotional would be…comforting, he decided.


Sakura, of course, gave him neither—she simply stared as though she were committing his face to memory, her eyes roving over each feature with rapt attention. He resisted the urge to fidget under the burden of that gaze.

He had never been what she wanted him to be, had never been what she thought he was. Hers was only another set of disappointments to add to his ever-growing pile. He sat down at her side, his elbows resting on his knees, chin in hand. It had been his default position as a boy, and Sakura almost—almost—smiled.

Some things at least, never changed.

Shaking off the memories, she sighed—quiet so he would not hear. Over the years she'd entertained many fantasies of their first conversation after his return. The scenarios varied from a tension-filled shouting match, to a heated exchange of lips and teeth. Generally, they depended on her mood; there were curses when she'd been so angry at him she couldn't think straight, fluffy promises to appease her inner romantic, quiet conversations with voices as taut as piano wires when she'd been at her most bitter.

Always, there had been words.

Now, there was only the quiet oppression of silence, the walls seeming to close in with every word they did not say.

It was different, she decided. That he was here, at her bedside, instead of it being the other way around, was different.

There were no apples this time, no ruby whorls to spill on the linoleum floor. Sakura didn't know how she'd react if there had been. She didn't know how to react at all. His presence was disorienting, and her body and mind screamed that now was not the time. She could not think clearly enough for this to happen now. There was nothing and everything left to say, and she didn't know where to start, so she didn't.

Sasuke, for his part, was still searching for an opening, and growing more frustrated with every moment. He was here, wasn't he? Wasn't that enough? Hadn't he taken the first step? Wasn't it her turn?

He was out of his element.

They sat there, in the company of each other—yet decidedly alone—until visiting hours were over and Sasuke retired to his manor.

There were no words.


iv. I made a model of you


They seemed to have reached an understanding of sorts after the night at the hospital.

Still, there was quiet. She was too used to the sting of rejection at the sound of her first syllable, and he was still unfamiliar with the art of speaking for its own sake. But still, there were small victories. She no longer ran at the first brief flare of his chakra, and he was careful to give her the space she so desperately needed from him. He thought it ironic—only a few years ago, she would have been thrilled at his tentative initiative. Now, she was skittish, almost afraid.

Naruto had been pleased. After stilted conversation at Ichiraku one night, wherein Naruto spoke to Sasuke, and Naruto spoke to Sakura, and Sakura and Sasuke spoke to the lukewarm broth in their bowls, he cornered her to report on their progress.

"It's going great," he said, bracingly. "You'll see, Sakura-chan! It'll work itself out, and soon you two will—"

He broke off, considering. What would they be, exactly?

They had to be more than teammates, he thought determinedly. They'd been through too much to start all over again. They had been through too much to end in circles.

But then, what?

They wouldn't be friends, exactly. Even before his defection, the only person Sasuke had bothered to acknowledge was Naruto—short of rewriting history, there was no way to deny it. The two of them understood each other. Even now, while they were no where near the level of reluctant closeness they were in their youths, there was—

There was training in the morning and sparring at noon. And, for now, at least, it was enough.

Would they be lovers?

He shifted uneasily on his feet, as he eyed the girl in front of him. She was standing, lovelorn and melancholy, under the cover of moonlight.

But not for him.

The realization left the taste of iron in his mouth.

Naruto cleared his throat, but before he could speak, Sakura stopped him.

"We two will be what we've always been—teammates. Nothing more."

She stepped around him to make her way back to her apartment.

"Good night, Naruto."


He was dangerous.

She kept this in mind as they were sparring, sweat-slick under the heat of summer sunshine.

Sai was a study in contrasts; dark hair, dark eyes and then miles and miles of pale, pale skin—especially now that his ridiculous half-shirt had been sliced to ribbons. He was all painted smiles and friendly eyes—sometimes, she wondered what he thought of before dreaming. His movements in battle were at once calculated—imbued with intent—and light, like the brushstrokes he used to create his most delicate works of art.

Sakura liked him best undone—with his hair mussed. It was yet another example of the dichotomy he exemplified, what with the air of apathy he managed to keep.

"Shall we stop?"

Instantly she was on guard, though Sai had dropped his weapons with his words.

"I did not want to hear you complain when I scored a hit. You were not paying very close attention."

She flushed an angry red.

"Shut up, Sai. Let's do this."

He shrugged, picking up his scroll.

"If you insist, Hag. Don't whine when you lose. It gets…" He stopped, trying to find the word. He'd heard it before, many times—its syllables rang dissonant; the way it sounded to the ear was a perfect example of its definition.

"Annoying?" Her voice was soft, and oddly…hopeful, Sai decided. He nodded.

"Yes. Thank you, Hag. That is the word I could not remember. Annoying. Your whining is annoying."

Later, Sakura told herself she hadn't hit him because he didn't know any better.


v. thought would destroy their paradise


"I didn't know you liked ketchup on your eggs."

Sakura looked at him evenly, and Sasuke cursed Naruto for leaving them alone together in the tea house. He was not yet used to a Sakura who could face him without being flustered.

"I like ketchup on many things, Sasuke."

And there it was. Once again, he'd had the urge to bite his tongue. Otherwise, he would have asked her where that last syllable went, the symbol of his elevation above all others in her life. It was not a question of him missing it, as much as it was yet another sign that things were different—would always be different. He met her gaze steadily, unwilling to be unnerved.

"I like tomatoes," he offered, almost grudgingly. Why wasn't she making this easier for him? For the first time, the silence that had surrounded him for most of his life felt heavy—a burden he wanted to discard.

"I know," she replied, and he was suddenly struck with the fact that yes. Yes, she did know. She'd known—had wanted to know—everything about him once upon a time. It was a mission she'd taken infinitely more seriously than the others they'd been assigned, he remembered.

The realization left him with an odd feeling—something like two people reading the same tome at different paces.

He was at the beginning, and evidently, she was nearing the end.

The thought left a surprisingly bitter taste in his mouth.

"Excuse me."

As he left, Sakura released the breath she was holding. He hadn't notice the white knuckles in her lap, and the little lines around her mouth.

She had passed this test—now all she could do was wait for the next.


"I don't understand you."

"I don't understand me, either."

"I mean, you say you forgive him—"

"I never said that."

"Sakura, hello? Five minutes ago."

"Well, I don't."


"There's nothing to forgive. He didn't do anything wrong."

"OK. Fine. We'll play it your way. Why are you so angry, then?"

"I'm not angry."

"And now, you're in denial."

"This isn't denial. I'm just saying that there's no reason for me to be angry, so I'm not."

"Why aren't you talking to him, then?"

"I am talking to him. And what do you care? I thought you'd be thrilled."

"What, me? No, no. So over. Him trying to kill my teammates stopped that pretty quickly."

"And yet, it didn't stop me."



"You admit it! You still want him."

"I don't want him. It's wrong. He was wrong. Is wrong."

"Is that what this is about?"


"You're putting some kind of…some kind of…moral value to the idea of loving him?"

"And who said anything about love? Not me."

"You don't have to—it's in your eyes."

"In my eyes? God. Now I'm a cliché."


"Why do you sound like—"

"You think this—the betrayal, the broken bonds, the heartache, the mental turmoil…you think it's cliché?"


"Sakura, this is past cliché—this is epic."

"You're very dramatic, you know."

"It's a gift."

"And so modest, despite."

"One does have to keep up appearances."

"I'll bet."

"Seriously. What's wrong with you, really?"

"Nothing's wrong with me. I'm fine."

"You've said that so many times it doesn't even sound like a word, anymore."

"Well, I am."

"Please. You've been flip-flopping all over the place. It's not like you to be so fickle."


"One day you forgive him, the next you're angry. One night you'll want to tell him everything, the next, you're so shut tight even Naruto can't get in. When are you going to decide?"

"Who says I have to?"

"Sakura…I know this hasn't been easy. But it's been months."

"And what rule says I've got to know what I feel the second he gets back?"

"You're missing my point."

"No, you're missing mine. Maybe I don't have to decide. Maybe this is how it works. Maybe, I get to hate him a little, and maybe I might love him, still, even if the thought does piss me off, maybe I don't have to forgive him, yet, and maybe I get to take my time. Maybe I get to be in turmoil. Maybe…"

"After all that, there's more? What else?"

"Maybe, just this once, I get to have it all."


Training with him had happened by accident.

It was a few days after the night at the tea house. Naruto had been away on another mission, and Sasuke had been spared the indignity of yet another D-class.

Sakura bit the urge to tell him he was lucky he was trusted with any missions at all.

She'd been surprised when he approached her with the offer of a spar the next morning. He'd sounded so very reluctant, and she guessed that it was a matter of pride for him.

The wound had taken her by surprise, and it wasn't so much the pain as it was her reaction—her distraction—during the match that bothered her.

It had been a point of pride for her—that Inner Sakura had grown quieter with the years. There was no more need for an inner vessel to store her most private thoughts; she liked to think that she'd become more forthright with age, more open about the things that kept her awake at night.

She still had her secrets of course. Everyone did. But for the most part, she thought that she was more willing to part with decorum, or at least—with her image of propriety—if it meant expressing herself.

But during these past few months, she'd found herself reverting back to her same old habits—at once guarded and vulnerable around him. She wasn't stupid—she knew enough of herself to realize that the last thing she wanted was to be hurt by him again. It was the same sense of self-preservation that made her such a good strategist—perhaps not on the same level as Shikamaru, but respectable nonetheless.

And yet, that self-preservation seemed to go hand-in-hand with the damnable selflessness that made Tsunade-shishou so angry when she read her mission reports.

When you heal, Sakura, you're helping the body—do what it takes to start the process, and move on! Be thorough, but do not linger. Your softness will get you killed one day, if you're not careful, and I've invested too much of my time into teaching you not to be angry at the possibility.

And then there was today.

Today, when she had faltered—again, yet again, and it seemed to be a cycle and would it ever stop?—when he had cut her.

As she walked home to mend that night, Sakura wondered when her life had become a mess of double entendres.


She wondered sometimes, when she was alone and the cover of light had left her, whether she was over-thinking this.

It was her way, she knew, to take comfort in the annals of rational thought during times of emotional turmoil—during times when it seemed most impossible to maintain such stasis.

Sasuke was back. It had been months—eight to be precise. There was still no resolution.

There was, however, a lot of hesitation. A lot of inconsistency.

She was a med-nin. She was steady in most everything.

Except him.

Sakura chuckled—it seemed she was determined to make her life difficult.


vi. and how do I prefer this face to another and


"You're really flip-floppy."

"I'm going to assume you mean fickle."

"Right. That. You're never fickle. You're like one big constant."

"This is true."


"What do you want me to say? It's him. He's always been the exception."

"Do you still…I mean, that is—"

"Would this be so difficult if I didn't?"

"He doesn't get it."

"Big surprise."

"I don't get it."

"Even bigger. You're on a roll."

"He asked about you again. This time he used your name."

"Nice to know he remembers it."


"All right, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. To you, anyway. I don't owe him anything."

"…I don't know much."


"Don't give me that look. Hear me out—you know I'm not very good at this kind of stuff."

"All right."

"Well, every time I hear you talk about him with someone—"

"You've been listening in on my conversations?"

"Uh-uh-uh! It's my turn."


"Thanks. Now anyway, it always sounds like you're, I don't know, talking to two people—kind of like you're trying to convince yourself, along with the other guy. Does that make any sense?"

"Convince them—wait, us, of what?"

"You know what, forget it. Just…listen. You don't get what you want most in life all the time."


"Still my turn!"

"So childish…"

"Anyway. You don't get lots of chances to be happy. And…I think after a while, after you figure it out, he might make you happy. Maybe. If he ever gets his head out from inside his ass."

"How eloquent."

"Well, I try."

"Try harder."

"I'm not saying you have to decide now. You've got lots to consider. But…I mean—"

"Why are you doing this?"

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"Don't play stupid with me. And God, don't make me say it."

"Well you're going have to. My stupid isn't just for show, you know."

"Idiot. I mean, why are you…helping this?"

"Oh. You mean…yeah, well. I figure if anyone deserves something to smile about—"

"—It's you."

"Would you be happy though? Really? I don't want someone who doesn't want me. I like to think I deserve a little better than that."

"The best…"

"The best is taken."

"…I wish I were better."

"Yeah, well. I just wish it were me."

"…me too. Sometimes."



"Yeah, well, if you fix this…if you figure it out—if it works out…"

"It'd be enough?"

"Maybe more than."

"…You're kind of amazing, you know."

"What can I say? It's a gift."

"Now where'd I hear that one…"


vii. and make a separate peace beneath within if never with


They were lying on the grass, three steps between them, when she sighed. It was mid-fall, and the trees had bared themselves, leaving her no cover.

"Ino called us epic, you know."

He was silent, and only the barest flickering behind his closed lids told her that he was paying attention.

Before courage left her, she continued.

"I want you to know that I don't forgive you. And that I hate you a little. Sometimes, I wake up and I want nothing more than to find out you've left again. Other times I wish you were lying next to me. Sometimes, I want to tell you everything, like I'm doing right now. Tomorrow, I'll probably hate myself for opening my mouth at all."

She drew in a deep breath.

"But that's OK. I get to be mixed-up and messed-up and jumbled and confused. I get to not know what I want. This is recovery—and it takes time. It doesn't have to come all at once, and it'll never be what it used to be. And that's OK." She said it quickly, as though the speed would strengthen its veracity—would make it credible not just to his ears, but to her own—but as she watched him, lying there with the sweat from their spar cooling on his skin, she felt lightened.

After a few heartbeats, he replied.

"I don't want your forgiveness," he said, carefully, as though she'd break down at the revelation. Sakura tried not to blame him—he still did not know her.

"Well, good. Because I'm not giving it to you."

He quirked a brow at that, as though the possibility of her anger being a permanent fixture had never crossed his mind. Rising slowly, she stretched her arms up and over her head.

He stood, ignoring the hand she'd offered. Old habits died hard, after all.

"You'll have to earn it."

And looking at her, the girl-child he'd left, and the woman she'd become, he thought, perhaps, maybe, with time—with trying because he was Sasuke, and she was Sakura, and their ending would never be so easy, and maybe just maybe, it didn't have to be—maybe he would.

He'd disappointed her in every way he could have.

Perhaps it was time for a change.


Well. That was long.

And winding.

And probably confusing.

Essentially, the reason I wrote this piece is because I wanted to explore the turbulence of Sakura's emotions after Sasuke's return. I've always thought that, steady and sure as she is, when it comes to Sasuke, it's not always so easy to not be fickle.

Sakura's human—her feelings change. She's not going to fall into his arms, but she isn't going to hate him forever. Who says that she can't have everything in between?

I guess the resolution here, is that there isn't one—and that that's OK.

I've done a horrible job explaining myself in this, but please, let me know what you think. I'm especially interested in your thoughts about this piece, so please, please, please review.

Thanks a lot.