- - -
The first time she steps in to extend his aphotic life, and the second, he thinks nothing of it. She is still loyal to him, after all, and how convenient that she happens to have been in the same place as him at the time.
She enters the scene, a glorious blaze of pink and red flame, and disposes of the enemy. He thinks he glimpses a flash of her hair, that delicate pastel colour, as she glances at him briefly before she is gone, like wisps of smoke after a fire in the dusk.
It is the third time that she bleeds from the shadows to end the life of one who would claim his that he realizes the pattern for what it is.
He raises two trembling fingers – and how ironic is it, that he should be the one reaching for her, now? – and clasps the edge of her sleeve, frayed and worn from years on the run.
How ironic is it, that her hitai-ate, a sign of her loyalty to her beloved village, now bears the same wound as the scarred metal and faded cloth he keeps in a pocket, close to his heart?
"Sakura," he rasps, because his voice is rough from years of having no one to talk to but himself and a million ghosts.
She looks down at him with eyes of dry peridot, jaded and cynical and unforgiving – not that he asks for forgiveness, but perhaps someday he will.
"Sakura," he says again; he swallows against the lump of – something – in his throat, and tries to speak. For the first time in years, he is not screaming at whispering ghosts.
Once-cerise lips, thin and pale and set in a grim line, move slightly. "What do you want?"
And her tone is cold as the black ice that lies, invisible, on the ground and is the cause of so many crimson-weeping wounds; and he withdraws his hand, just a little.
"Sakura…" he whispers for the third time, and she sighs; once she would have been overjoyed to hear her name from his lips, but now she is merely impatient.
He shivers to hear his name fall from her cold mouth, gathers himself up, and speaks.
"Why are you following me?"
A short laugh. "So arrogant, to assume it is you I am following. Perhaps you are following me?"
"Sakura." His brow furrows, deepening the worry lines already etched into his forehead. "You have saved me three times now. Why?"
Another bark of laughter, so different from the attitude of the soft, delicate innocent he knew. "A three year old child asks less questions than you do, Sasuke."
"Sakura." He is insistent; finally she relents.
"As you wish. Yes, as much as it may wound your ego, I am following you."
"What, to keep me out of trouble?"
"Of course not," she tells him softly. "I am here merely to ensure your survival. Your mental and physical condition matter not."
"But why, Sakura?" he presses.
Her lips compress. "And why do you wish to know?"
At a loss for words, he is silent – but only for a moment. "I need to know, that's all. Is it because you still love me?"
For a moment, her eyes darken to emerald and the corners of her mouth soften to something not quite as hard as granite.
"Why are you protecting me?"
She sighs and presses a limp marble hand to her eyes. "…For memories. For forgotten memories and wistful hopes and wishes. For dreams of laughing children and tender kisses. For…"
Here she trails off and turns away. Before he can say anything, she steps into the unmoving shadows.
The small spot of dampness on the ground goes unnoticed.
He is careful, and a few more years, spent alone in the dark with the murmurs of the dead, pass before he sees her again.
The infamous Kakashi of the Sharingan Eye is long dead, but the Rokudaime Hokage of Konoha eagerly welcomes back his heart's brother with open arms. When the last member of Team Seven appears, Naruto's heart is filled to bursting.
His joyful declaration that his house is their house is interrupted by a weary wave from Sakura. She has lived alone for so long now, she tells them, that to live with someone as vivacious and effervescent as Naruto would throw her off.
"Come live with me," Sasuke says suddenly.
She turns abruptly to him and stares at him, jade eyes suspicious from watching shadows for death and allies for potential betrayers.
"Marry me," he says simply. "Share my home and my name." He holds out his hand, thin and strong from years of slaying and wounding.
Unexpectedly, she recoils and turns her face from him, unable to keep him from seeing the trails of tears that make their way down cheeks that are gaunt and sunken from pain but are somehow still beautiful in their harshness.
"Let me stay with you, to care for you," she murmurs brokenly, "but as a sister, and not as a wife."
When he sees the wetness pooling in eyes that have been dry for so long, he cannot do anything but agree.
They live, together but so far apart, for months. Her existence is bleak, grey; she toils ceaselessly at the hospital, healing the neverending stream of injured fighters because she cannot yet be trusted to leave the village and come back.
(Fools. Of course she would come back; after all, Sasuke is here, is he not?)
He does menial work alongside the children of Konoha to earn back his honour, and they are two people working to live again.
It is aeons – or is it years, or months, or weeks? – before he remembers her words to him the last time they met.
It is at night, while the moon shines silently through the curtains, penetrates the darkness of the shroud of death that resides in the house, that he slips into her room.
He has given her the room that belonged to his mother, because – because – he doesn't know why.
"Sakura," he murmurs into the darkness, and she stirs.
Her eyes flash once, and then they are the dull green they always are nowadays. She waits for him to speak.
"If you want children," he begins uncertainly, because he has never done this – this loving – before. "If you want children, then will you not marry me? You spent so long making sure I was alive; why, if not out of love for me?"
"Why?" she chokes out, and then startles him with her intermittent laughter. "I kept you alive out of love, yes, but not out of love for you." She wipes her eyes, drying them of tears of – what? Mirth? Sorrow? She cannot tell.
"Perhaps there are remnants of the feelings I had for you so long ago, but they have been buried for so long. They are no more than embers that have been smothered beneath rock."
"Then what?" he demands.
Her eyes widen and fix on his. "Your brother gave so much to protect you," she whispers quietly, somberly. "How could I let his sacrifice be in vain? He loved you so much that he had very little to spare, but he gave me what he had left, and I treasured it."
His mouth drops open in shock.
"I stood beside him as he fought and bled and died to keep you breathing," she sighs, looking out the window into the night. "I healed him and looked up and watched him as he watched you, and I envied you his love. But I knew that my dreams of smiling children with a father and a mother were but dreams, and that I would never have more than the brief embraces stolen when you were safe."
She smiles softly at him, and the sorrow and the acceptance in her expression kills something inside of him. "But he worked so hard, and I had what he gave me, and if it wasn't enough, well, then, I was content."
"It's all right, Sasuke." And her next words bring tears to his eyes, eyes of dark stone that have not cried since he stood over the bleeding bodies of his parents and the vermillion-stained katana blade of his brother. "I have been overshadowed by something more important than I for so long that I know how to snatch moments that will never come again and treasure them when I am pushed aside. I can survive in the dark corner of a heart, the place reserved for whatever is left when all else is taken."
"But you cannot grow; you cannot thrive." His hand, cool and dry, comes up to cup her cheek as he gazes at her in realization.
"Why would I need to thrive?" she asks him calmly. "As long as I am alive, I can continue to protect you. I can continue to hope that perhaps in another life, I will be of more importance to him than I was in this life. Don't you see? If I love you as your brother loved you, I can at least tell myself that there is a chance that when I die as well, he will look at me and see me without watching you out of the corner of his eye."
"Why can't you see, Sasuke? I wanted him to love me as much as he loved you! I wanted him to tear his beautiful eyes away from you for just one moment and see me – see that I loved him so much! I wanted his love, I wanted more than I was given, I wanted – I wanted – "
Here her composure breaks, and she is reduced to a weeping pile of cloth and skin and hair, curled into a ball on the bed that used to be his mother's.
He leans inward, wrapping his arms carefully around her shaking form. "Sakura…"
"Why are you still here?!" she demands, throwing off his arm weakly. "Why? I am a horrible person! If I could have, I would have stolen his love from you! I would have – I – "
Her sobbing wrenches his heart, and he looks for a way to stop it; any way to stop it.
"I wanted him to love me so much…" She holds back a wail as the moonlight dances over her face and causes the tear-tracks to glimmer and glisten.
Sasuke rubs soothing circles on her back, something in the vicinity of his chest pounding wildly. "Sakura, my brother didn't have much capacity for love…" he tries, but is interrupted by her furious shriek.
"What would you know?! You, who have never stood beside him and seen the softening of his eyes when he speaks of you! You, who have never seen the warmth in his face and the emotions behind his façade when he looks at you, and when he kisses me… Oh, I should have been happy with what I had! Now look where I am!"
When her tirade subsides, he pulls her to him and cradles her gently to his chest, with her pink head tucked firmly under his chin.
"Sakura, that's enough. I know you loved him, but Itachi is dead now."
She burrows deeper into his shirt, unconsciously seeking warmth and comfort and succor. "I know he's dead," she hisses acerbically, her voice completely at odds with her actions. "I just wish I had… told him I…"
He listens helplessly to her torn voice. "I – I am the cause of this," he says slowly, unable to deny it. "Give me a chance to make up for it, Sakura. Marry me, and I will give you children and as happy a home as is possible."
They wonder if this grave that is called a house can ever be a happy home.
"Sakura, will you marry me?"
There is no answer, because she has fallen asleep. He places her gently down onto the grey sheets – they used to be ivory, but she claims that the pure colour does not fit her – and tucks the edges of her blanket in around her.
And the soft, pale light of the moon and the stars is dimmed as clouds veil the sky.
He takes one look back at her before he closes the door and steps out into the hallway. The slight upward lift at the corners of her mouth tells him that someday, perhaps sooner, those wishes of tender embraces and loving kisses will become reality.
And who knows? Perhaps one day, the floating laughter of happy children and a family will follow.
- - -
(there is no)