What was she supposed to say again? The answer eluded her, not that she was in any particular hurry to respond. "What?" She asked in a voice above a whisper.
"I'm ready to be with you," he said with a firm resolve. His dark eyes combined with the small beams of light that the Sun pitched through the hospital's lace curtains – turned his irises a rich brown instead of black.
He watched her while she said…nothing. A whole ten minutes might have passed and she still had not decided what to say. It didn't seem to bother Sasuke in the least. He seemed dead set on waiting for her.
"You left me," she said finally. "And I can understand why but it makes me feel insecure about you."
His jaw hardened momentarily, making his already all-too-serious face a little darker. "It was something I had to do. Sakura, I don't think you get it. He was going to kill you and he had already killed my family – cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, and by extension – my brother." His voice lingered on the last bit and she could hear the emotion in its ache.
"I know," she whispered.
"Do you really? I thought that maybe you, damn everyone else, could have understood. Considering that you've seen my pain – felt it."
Sakura sighed and then looked down at her hands. She had forgotten that he was still holding her hand in his. He felt cold. "I've accepted you, Uchiha Sasuke, for who you are."
He stared at her, questioningly.
"But I'm not ready to be with you yet. I have just been thinking and well…what happens next time when I'm threatened? Are you going to leave me then too? Or will you let me stand by you as an equal?"
"I-" He started but then stopped.
Sakura shook her head and sighed. "You see? You can't even answer me because you know the truth."
"I don't want to lose you," he murmured. "I've been trying to exist here and just get by. But getting by isn't good enough anymore. I'm empty, Sakura. I can't be who I was before everything happened to me – I know that, you know that. I won't pretend. But you really are the only good inside of me. And I thought that maybe I could get by without that…but I told you I'm just fucking sick of just getting by."
He gripped her hand tighter. "You once told me that you'd stand by me when we were children. I was on the wrong path then and I won't make an apology for that. But I'm here now."
She blinked and then swallowed the lump in her throat. "And you think that's enough?"
His teeth gritted. "I'm hoping."
"Let's start over," Sakura said finally. "I know that I want to be with you but…I just can't bring myself to…"
"Jump into my arms?" He offered, a small smirk playing on his lips.
"Well good. Because that would be annoying," The Uchiha whispered, his eyes considerably warm.
"You know what? I'd like for you to take me on a date," Sakura teased.
"…A date? I want to spend the rest of my life with you and you want to just date?" He asked, slightly frustrated.
With her free hand, Sakura smoothed away the frustrated lines on his brow. His eyes closed briefly.
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. You want to be with me? Then we do this my way. We tried your way last time and that got us almost killed. And I think that we should do this slowly…friends first…and then…" She flushed, not exactly sure what else to say.
And then he leaned over and murmured something that she was sure Uchiha Sasuke would never say. Yet he did.
Someone cleared their throat from the entryway and Sakura was delighted to glance up and see Tsunade in the flesh. "Well if Uchiha is done whispering obscenities in my pupil's ear then I'd like to say a few words."
Sasuke scowled at her, his handsome face agitated. Tsunade grinned evilly and continued to ignore the giant holes he was burning into her skull.
"First off," The flaxen haired woman began, her amber eyes serious. "I speak for Uchiha and myself in saying that we're glad to have you back with us. Three weeks isn't a long time to sleep is it? Versus your previous fairytale sleep for almost two years anyways."
Sakura shuddered a little, the thought of being comatose again made her jumpy.
"It took Sasuke a couple of days to regain consciousness, three days in fact."
Sakura glanced to her left to see that Sasuke was smirking…but only just a little. "He has to beat me at everything it seems," The pink haired medic sighed.
"It would seem so," Tsunade remarked, her lips twitching in silent amusement. "It was Genma who figured out that one of you didn't need to sacrifice yourself to save the other. Since you and Sasuke are tied so completely to one another, if I healed one of you, it would do the same for the other. But you'll be happy to know that Akemi is dead as well as Danzo."
Sakura briefly remembered that right before she had hit the ground, Genma had lunged for him…
"Genma!" Sakura screamed.
Sasuke glanced at Tsunade who simply shook her head. Sakura watched the exchange, her throat tightening in the painful way that it usually did when she would start to get overly emotional. "Shishou…Sasuke? What happened to him?"
"Sharingan," Sasuke replied silently. Sakura turned to look at him and she could see that he was trying his best not to look affected by her touching concern for another man.
Sakura blinked. "What about it?"
"When I first went after Danzo, I wanted him to hit me you see that way we would make direct eye contact. I was going to finish him off with my Sharingan but I didn't know the asshole had one too," he said the last part through gritted teeth.
"But since he was so weak, having just regained his youth and health after almost two years of testing and experiments, Genma was able to kill him after they fought. But Danzo made sure to get the last laugh. Whatever he did to Genma with Sharigan…it's left him completely vegetative. Chances are he will never resurface."
She felt like her stomach had been twisted and then ripped out. Repeatedly. "…There's nothing you can do for him?….Nothing at all?"
"We're trying," Tsunade replied from the center of the room. "And Sasuke has been spending everyday with him, trying to call him out of the Sharingan induced sleep but there's been no change aside from the occasional hand twitch."
"…Can I see him?"
She felt Sasuke's hand loosen from hers. Sakura glanced at him but he had his eyes purposefully trained on the far wall. "Of course. After I run a few tests on you."
Sakura sighed and then rubbed her temple. Just when she had been so happy - everything was falling in on itself. Again. "What about Kakashi-sensei and Sai?"
Her mentor picked at her red painted finger nails and then shuffled through a few hidden bills that were pocketed in her ample chest. "Hatake returned home a week ago and returned to his regular duties yesterday. He said to send his regards when you awoke. And Sai - is gone."
Gone? Did she mean like dead? Or had she meant that he was simply vacationing in Suna?
She tried to speak yet no words came. Sasuke still had not moved. Tsunade looked close to breaking down.
"He won't be coming back. As of three weeks ago he is considered - rogue."
Sakura jolted forward. She hadn't moved from the bed. The sudden news seem to just shock her forward like an electric pad had been placed directly over her heart. It's beat was out of rhythm. "…What?"
Tsunade seemed more Hokage-like in that moment. Her gold-brown eyes were narrowed and solemn, her pink glossy lips pressed into a straight tight line. "The things that he has done are inexcusable, good intentions or not," she said coldly.
"B-but…he was just playing Akemi all along…" Sakura said helplessly. Why did it feel like this whole scenario had been rehearsed before? She looked to Sasuke for support. "..Right?"
Sasuke still refused to meet her eyes. "He knew what the mission entailed before he accepted, Sakura. So just let it be."
"No!" She yelled. Tsunade let out a heavy sigh of frustration.
"To prove his loyalty to Akemi and Danzo until the time was right to strike, Sai had to do certain things. Things that would not sit well with the council or the general public if he were to stay. Perhaps one day…" She closed her brown eyes. "…maybe he could return home…it is a possible future for him."
Her mentor put a hand on her shoulder, probably in an effort to show some sort of condolence. "You must have meant a great deal to him - take comfort in that."
The pink haired medic shrugged her hand off - rudely.
Sakura turned in her hospital bed, and laid her head against the pillow. She didn't want to talk to anyone. She didn't want to think. Eat. Or even look at anyone. She just wanted to sleep.
Because at least when she woke up, it seemed her life was always different.
Ten months later
When the last drop of twilight had finally subsided from view - Sakura stepped outside. It was a relatively chilly night though not as nearly as cold as it had been some nights before.
She was barefoot, her toes curling in the cool blades of the autumn grass. All around her feet, various leaves of all kinds littered the ground. Yellow, red, orange, and brown leaves twirled in the air in the far distance…creating a kind of mesmerizing dance.
It distracted her from her original task and only when she heard a graceful footfall approach did she snap to attention. "Tonight feels different…"Sasuke murmured into her ear as he passed.
On the small table that he had left outside just for her, he picked up a tiny paper lantern. Its exterior was a hand painted red that would glow beautifully when lit.
Sakura approached the table as well, her hands working systematically. She soaked a small ball of cotton in alcohol, the smell reminding her painfully of her slow days in the hospital, and placed it in the lantern in a tiny foil cup that was hidden in its center.
"Can you light that for me, now?" She asked. Sasuke obliged her, cupping his mouth with one hand and blowing into it. A small ball of orange flames shot from his mouth and into the lantern.
He held it up into the air, when the powerful heat from his miniature katon had lessened, and they both watched as he let the lantern go.
It floated up into the air, slowly and beautifully. It raised higher and higher, lighting the sky with its scarlet came to stand next to her and after a moment her hand found his. His full lips parted in complete contentment.
Sakura stared at the fading light of their lantern. "I used to make these for you once upon a time."
Sasuke side glanced at her, his shiny black hair flowing in the slight breeze. "I know."
"How?" She asked quietly.
"In one of your dreams," he explained. "I hadn't meant to pry but the memory seemed to just jump out at me."
"Do you know why I used to make them for you?"
He shook his head.
"To guide you home," Sakura replied with an affectionate nuzzle into his shoulder.
After another moment passed, he spoke. "Do you think it worked?"
She stared at him, her viridian eyes meeting his black ones. "You're here, aren't you?"
"Yeah," He glanced back at the black sky. Their lantern was a small speck of ruby light now. "I am."
Sakura started to speak. "So I was thinking of seeing Ino tomorrow - "
"I love you," he blurted out.
They both stared at each other, a different kind of fear in each. "Sasuke I-" She started but stopped.
"Please tell me you love me too," he said slowly, his eyes closed. There was the smallest trace of hurt in his voice. "Because its been almost a year and everyday I wake up trying to hide the fact that I'm in love with you. Maddeningly so."
He cut her off. "No you listen now." Behind him, the door to his house was still left ajar from when he had followed her outside. "You won't be sad forever Sakura. You can't be. You wanted to take things slow and I respected that…but enough is enough! I can't pretend that I'm fine with what we are now. Dating? Is that what we're doing?"
"I'm not ready to just…" She started but again could not finish.
"Bullshit," he fired back.
"I love you! Okay?" She screamed.
He leaned in forward and she puckered her lips in response. Instead of pressing his lips to hers, he simply pressed them to her forehead.
"I'm scared," she admitted after a moment in his chest.
"Me too," he answered.
"Sasuke, I don't want my love to be wasted," she said seriously. He nodded. "Because I need to know that I made the right choice in picking you. Genma would have been so much easier…"
"But I never was one to pass up a challenge."
"Thank you," he whispered. "I know you have every reason to not choose me. You chose me even when I didn't choose you first. I thought for sure you would have ran off with Genma when he woke up. But," he stopped.
He smiled. "You stayed with me."
A/N: That's it. This story, even though Sakura was the prevalent protagonist, was about Sasuke's emotional journey, at least to he's finally at the point where I think he needs to be. That lantern was for Sai, in case any of you were wondering. Possible sequel? Maybe. I don't think so. We'll see.
You never know with me. wink. wink.