Title: Time to Turn the Page

Rating: PG-13

Summary: 'As the end of Sasuke's purgatory draws closer, Sakura's bad days begin to outnumber the good.' Naruto, Sakura and the absence of Sasuke.

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Naruto hates the look that Sakura gets in her eyes, when the brilliant foliage of her irises grow dull with rheum induced by yet another period of prolonged wakefulness and her mouth forms the curve of a tree branch too heavily weighed down with fruit. On the point of breaking, but not quite. That particular expression holds a world of words unspoken, of dedication pushed to its limit and the knowledge that this is the only path to walk.

Straying means failure and failure means a loss of self.

Sakura has no wish to become a ghost of promises past and present so she toils with a sedulous tenacity. The good days outweigh the bad and so, mostly, her perseverance is a cheerful thing. On these days, her smile is bold and her outlook bright – optimism reigns supreme because, really, she's Sakura-chan and whatever she puts her mind to she gets. She's long since quashed the opinions of those who labelled her as 'poor, poor Sakura, all woebegone and left behind.' She doesn't chase memories – her goal is solid, if not quite tangible yet.

To the romantics in Konoha, she's something of an emblem. Over tea and dango, they twitter over how brave she is, how admirable her loyalty is and hasn't she become strong these days that apprentice of the Godaime? Taller now, older as well (but not by much) and so much more focused than she used to be. An asset in these troubled times.

Naruto knows better.

Naruto knows better because he's been a witness to her bad days and, when they roll around, he finds himself wishing for even the most violent extremes of the mercurial nature that he can recall from days of yore, when one plus one plus one really made three instead of the splintered fragments of a team that they've become. With her vibrancy tarnished by a harsh regime of work, work, work, Sakura's becoming indistinct at the edges. Over-achieving and over-expectant, the knowledge that their allotted three years is almost over weighs heavily upon the girl who was left behind. He had felt the sting of being abandoned as well, but his ability to channel despair into a stubborn front blunted the blow, just as it had when he was a pariah to all but Iruka-sensei.

Guilt that he left Sakura alone with her obsessions while he was away plagues him when his mind lingers in its own darkest corners.

He thinks she's brave. He always thinks well of her, but watching her put away the tears of youth as she grimly attacks what most see as an impossible task makes him see his Sakura-chan in a new light. Once he'd deluded himself that he was going to grow up to protect her. Like most childish ideals, it paled in the unforgiving light of adulthood as it became apparent that, in all likelihood, Sakura would survive what he wouldn't. Not in terms of wounds and war and the breaking of delicate, porcelain skin because he had unnatural help in that department of living from one day to the next, but in terms of all consuming grief.

When they last saw Sasuke and the Uchiha so dully crushed the hope that, if only given the chance, he would come home, Naruto had been the one to cry. Sakura, however, had run out of tears long before then.

Loss had made Sakura strong and it's a transformation that the kyuubi's host regards with wonder. Gone is that delicate blossom of a girl from their youth (and, really, while they're young still, they're both so old as well) and in its place is a rapier of a girl. Naruto blames Sasuke for the loss of Sakura's softness and the honing of her fine edges. He blames Sasuke for turning her into one of Kakashi's hunter dogs – incapable of leaving the scent trail even when it only leads to bloodshed. And sometimes (but only sometimes) he admires what she has become because the part of him that's all calculating shinobi sees it as improvement.

But most of the time, he sees her when she gets that look, the one where her tired gaze tells him that she knows it's all in vain by now, but that she's incapable of giving up. And because she's his Sakura-chan and because Sasuke is what they both lost, he stays at her side, trying to make up for when he wasn't.

As the end of Sasuke's purgatory draws closer, Sakura's bad days begin to outnumber the good.

When she's poring over old records of sightings, trying to piece together the fragments of a journey that Sasuke's been making without them, Naruto sits up with her. He listens when she bounces desperate theories off of him. He takes on her missions so that she can spend that extra day going over facts that she already knows by heart, attempting to find new truth in a stark reality that neither of them want to accept.

For both of them, faith is all they have left.

In the face of her grim tenacity, he wonders sometimes if she'd make this same effort if it had been him who had disappeared in the night. He almost asked once, but quailed in the face of her tired smile as she murmured her thanks when he thrust a steaming bowl of soup at her. Looking at her, pale and slender and hardworking, he realised he didn't want to know the answer. Pretty, peppy Sakura-chan had only grown more beautiful over the years and Naruto thinks he loves her as much as he is capable of loving anyone, even if her gaze is set far over his head on the one who always surpassed him.

Time is running out and more and more he finds himself turning frustration inwards. He'll jerk off in the shower, swiftly and angrily with the temperature set as high as he can stand and half-formed fantasies clouding his mind. Afterwards, the tiles are cold against his forehead as he leans there and jitters silently between tears and rage. It could never be simply about him and Sakura because, without Sasuke, neither of them know how to go on. Without their third part, they are nothing.

Their present is rife with uncertainty, but the one thing that Uzumaki Naruto is sure of is that Sasuke will be coming back. The Uchiha will return to Konoha, dragged by Naruto if necessary, because the bastard doesn't get to escape the cold, hard truth of what his absence has done to Sakura. And – maybe – Sasuke coming back will fix her. Fix them and make one plus one plus one equal three again.

So when Sakura has her bad days and that delicate face is weighed down by sorrow, Naruto is able to assure her that what they do will pay off in the end. Because while Sakura has grown stronger, so has Naruto and all he wants to do is make sure that he never has to see that look of hers again.

Between the two of them, Sasuke doesn't stand a chance.