Okay! Last chapter. A few warnings: (1) this chapter is long. 10 000 words, twice as long as the last two. But those were each about one person, and this is about two, so you see me logic?; (2) this hcapter is really confusing and weird, because Sasuke's confused and Sakura's confused, and the two of them made me confused, and this chapter is sort of trying to bring that out; and (3) it's OOC, especially with recent developments in the manga, but I'm ignoring those, because it just ruined the entire plotline. Yay for divergent futures, I guess.
I suggest reading the last two chapters first, because everything is sort of linked. This one refers to little pieces of dialogue from the first two chapters that you might otherwise miss. Also, you know the drill: What did you like, what didn't you, concrit is appreciated, all that jazz.
Also, it's my birthday, and I am old. I love how I write myself fic almost every year.
A Highly Contested Topic
Sakura didn't cry.
She didn't have the need to. She wasn't surprised, and if she was hurt, well, she had been prepared for it. She was angry – so angry – and she was sad for Sasuke, that he just never learned. But she didn't break. Not this time.
She didn't tell Naruto, either. Didn't tell him to bring Sasuke-kun back for her. This time, if she failed to bring him back, it would all be on her. She would be punished. Naruto would be so disappointed. And Kakashi would think – again – that she wasn't worth it. Wasn't worth his time.
But it was better than letting someone else take her chance. This was her time.
So without a thought, without a word to anyone else, Sakura ran.
Sakura found Sasuke easily enough. He wasn't far in the forest, just enough to avoid being caught. He hadn't gone as far as she had thought he would have by the time she caught up, and Sakura couldn't help but wonder if he had been waiting for her.
She didn't say anything as she stepped into the small clearing. Trees pressed all around them, but the sky was a cheerful blue right above their heads. Sakura decided that, if she was about to get her heart broken, at least she had some good weather for it.
Sasuke didn't turn to face her as she approached, but Sakura knew he had noticed her. And, indeed, when she stopped, a few feet away, he began to speak, in a low voice.
"Do you remember the Forest of Death?"
Sakura nodded; how could she forget? The look in his eyes, the sound of his voice, the way his muscles had stiffened under her touch as black markings coated his skin – they were engrained into her mind.
"I knew then that if I wanted my revenge I couldn't be anywhere near you," he said, speaking quickly, as if the words were fighting to get out, "Naruto and Kakashi could understand bloodshed, but not you – never you. If I was to fulfill my life's goal, I had to leave you." Sasuke stiffened. He hadn't meant for the words to come out quite like that.
Sakura's throat felt very tight, and when she swallowed, it hurt. "What do I say to that, Sasuke?" she said in a low, rough voice. She kept her eyes on him, waiting for him to turn and meet her gaze. He wouldn't – or couldn't? "You left because of me?" His words left her cold, and she wondered what that even meant. Did he care so much about her, or—
Sasuke finally turned, and Sakura looked away – she couldn't meet his gaze this time. "You couldn't have me in your life?"
Sasuke's expression changed for only a heartbeat, smooth emptiness flashing to blank shock and back, so quickly Sakura didn't know if it had been there in the first place.
"You were never supposed to be in my life, Sakura," he corrected quietly. "But I still had you."
"Still have me, Sasuke."
The forest fell silent. Even the animals, the trees, the air itself seemed to be waiting for Sasuke to reply. Sakura could her own breaths, hard and fast and in time to her thumping heart, but Sasuke was still. He stared at her and she stared back. He started to take a step closer, then faltered. Hesitated. Sakura stayed where she was, waiting for Sasuke to make the first move towards her – just this once.
Then he dropped his arms to his sides and took a step back, and she knew she had lost him.
Knew there was no way to make him stay.
"Sasuke-kun," Sakura began, voice shaking – she had failed, she had ruined everything, how could she ever face Naruto again? How could she face herself again? – "Before you go, answer me one question." He didn't move, and she said, "If you want to pretend you don't care about me at all, why did you kiss me?"
Sasuke jerked his head up and his gaze to hers for a moment, then turned away. "I didn't—" He shook his head. "I don't know."
Sakura sucked in a breath. She had expected him to deny it, or at least try.
"So… would you kiss me again?"
This time when Sasuke met her gaze, his mask was back in place. She was burning with embarrassment and fear, of how he may answer, but Sasuke was as cool and composed as ever.
Sakura flinched, but Sasuke continued before she could reply. "Aren't you going to try to stop me?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Maybe I can," Sakura said. She hadn't dropped into any sort of battle stance, hadn't even pulled out a weapon. Of course, neither had Sasuke. Still, he didn't need one to stop her. "You don't know that I can't, Sasuke-kun."
Sasuke scoffed. "I'm leaving, Sakura, and even you can't stop me."
Even you. He had said that, once before. After he had gotten his Curse Seal.
"'Even' me?" Sakura echoed. "Do I hold that much power over you, Sasuke-kun?" She wouldn't look at him, and Sasuke knew that, even now, even against all odds, she was hoping he cared about her more than he did.
"No," he said forcefully, and she flinched, just as he'd known she would. "Go home, Sakura."
"Or what? You'll knock me out and leave me on a bench? You just tried that." She lifted her gaze to his. It was steady, the hurt carefully masked where he could only find it if he looked hard enough. And he did. "It didn't work, Sasuke-kun. If you want me to leave, you'll have to send me back bleeding."
"I can't do that," Sasuke said, before he could stop himself. It had been a lesson beaten into his brain almost from the moment they were put on a team together. Ever since he had opened his eyes to find her weeping over his body. Protect Sakura. He couldn't hurt her. Not physically.
But Sakura didn't know that. She stared at him, mouth half-gaping in surprise, before she composed herself and said, "Then come back home with me. Please."
"No," he said. "It's not my home."
"It is. You lived in Konoha for so long, and—"
"I hate Konoha."
Sakura faltered, searching for words. Finally, she began, "Sasuke-kun…"
"Don't," he said, holding up a hand. "Konoha isn't my home anymore. It destroyed my family." At her expression, he added, "I can't hurt you, or even Naruto, and I won't hurt innocents. I promised that. But I can't live there anymore. I don't belong in Konoha – or with you."
Green eyes widened, and Sakura lurched forward. "Sasuke-kun, what do you—"
"Go back to Team Seven. You have Sai now. You don't need me."
"I'll always need you. Not just me. Naruto—"
"Naruto has you," Sasuke said, and Sakura looked away. "Go home, Sakura."
"If you had wanted me to go home, you wouldn't have waited here for me," Sakura said. "What if someone else had caught you?"
"And if they had?" Sasuke glared at the ground, and so Sakura didn't press him. "The last time you did this, I threatened to scream. What would you do if I screamed this time."?
"No one would hear you."
"You underestimate our village. If they heard me, and if they came, what would you do?"
Sasuke met her gaze coolly. "Whatever I needed to do," he said, only half-honest.
"What happened to my Sasuke-kun?" Sakura said, looking him straight in the eye. "What happened to the boy who laid me on a bench and encouraged me before the Chuunin exams? What happened to the boy who needed me to hold his hand?"
Sasuke didn't reply. Sakura waited a moment, then sighed, dropping her hands from her hips. She leveled Sasuke a long, measuring look that made something inside him twist, and then she turned and began to walk away, leaving Sasuke staring after her.
"Sak—" he started, not knowing what he planned to say or why, indeed, he was calling after her, after he had spent so long trying to get rid of her, when she spun abruptly on her heel, ten feet away.
"Sasuke-kun," she said, and now Sasuke noticed she was pulling on her gloves, "I want you to fight me." At his expression, she added, "Sudden death. First to draw blood wins. If you beat me, you can leave, and I won't try to stop you."
Sasuke hesitated for a moment. Then Sakura rushed him, and his instincts took over, Sharingan flashing on.
She struck him first, in the abdomen, but there was a poof, and a log hit the hard earth with a muted thud. Then he was behind her, and Sakura ducked and rolled on instinct, as the grass under her burst into flame. She threw a kunai, he dodged. He threw a shuriken, she blocked. And on it went.
And then Sasuke had grabbed her arm and pinned her roughly to a tree. Her cheek was pressing into the bark, but Sakura didn't struggle or disappear, and he brought his hand up to the base of her neck—
And suddenly she was on him, one foot planted firmly on his chest as Sasuke lay on the ground, staring up at her in frustrated bewilderment. She smiled when she noticed, even as she was drawing a kunai.
"Do you know why I beat you, Sasuke-kun?" she asked conversationally. "It wasn't because I'm stronger than you. I'm not. I know I'm not. It's because I respect you enough to acknowledge that you're skilled that I could beat you." She kneeled, still pinning him with her knee, now. Sasuke didn't struggle, though he didn't think he would be able to break her hold anyway. He was listening, intently, to what she was saying.
"You couldn't cut me, could you, Sasuke-kun? Your first instinct was to knock me out – again." And now she frowned, pinning him with her gaze. "Don't you think I learned from the first time, Sasuke?" she asked, dropping her voice. "You didn't knock me out earlier. You didn't even surprise me. And why? Because I know at least one thing about you, and that's that you can't hurt me," she added, somewhat bitterly, which Sasuke didn't understand.
And in a flash, their roles were reversed, and Sakura was flat on her back, Sasuke holding her down with a hand pinning each wrist to the ground. His face was very close to hers when he spoke.
"I can hurt you," he said, and Sakura felt cold metal sliding softly against the inside of her wrist. She shivered, and noticed her kunai in Sasuke's hand, held between his palm and the back of her hand. As she watched, he pressed the handle deeper, though the blade wasn't in deep enough to draw blood. Yet.
"Then do it," she said, defiantly. "Give me a reason to finally hate you."
Sasuke stared at her for a long moment, and Sakura knew she could break away from him. But she didn't.
And then he was off her, and Sakura saw the glint of metal, and then she smelled blood. But it wasn't hers.
Sasuke tossed the blood-stained kunai at her feet, not bothering to wipe the blood flowing from his arm. Sakura stared at him, baffled. Then he looked away, eyes tight with pain, and she snapped back into motion.
"Why would you do that?" she demanded, getting to her feet and pulling Sasuke towards her. He didn't resist, though he stubbornly avoided her gaze.
"Why didn't you fight out of my hold?" he shot back. Sakura faltered and then, without replying, began to heal the gash on his forearm. "You won. Take me back to Konoha," he said.
Sakura shook her head. "I didn't draw your blood. You did – probably because you couldn't take mine," she added. "And I never said I'd take you back if I won," she told him, rocking back on her heels. His arm was healed, but she didn't let go. "I have no intention of taking you anywhere. Naruto tried to bring you back by force, and that clearly didn't work. I want you back – but only if you want to be back." Sakura squeezed his hand and dropped it, stepping back.
Sasuke stayed still, watching her walk away. His arm throbbed, and he wondered just what had possessed him to cut himself so deep.
"Sasuke-kun," Sakura said suddenly, coming to a halt. Her back was to him. She was wide-open. "If I had asked you this time to take me with you, what would you say?"
Sasuke was silent for a long moment, and Sakura held her breath, waiting for him to reply. And just as she was wondering if it wouldn't come, there was a rustle behind her, and the softest brush of air against her back, and then Sasuke's voice, right by her ear and yet somehow so distant, made Sakura stiffen in shock.
She closed her eyes for a moment, clenched her jaw, and turned, careful to step back until they weren't touching. "Now I wish I hadn't asked," she said, "Because this time, I don't want to go with you."
Sasuke's expression didn't change, but Sakura noticed him flick his gaze away from her, only for a split-second. Then his eyes met hers again, steady and piercing.
"I can't go back," he said quietly.
"Why not?" she demanded. Then she took a breath, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Sorry. I'm sorry. But, Sasuke-kun—"
"I never planned to return to Konoha," he said, not looking at her. He had never told anyone this. "And… especially now, with everything I learned—" He met her gaze again, and Sakura was struck by the vulnerability in his so-dark eyes—"I can't."
Sakura licked her lips. Her hands were shaking, and she clasped them behind her back so Sasuke couldn't see. "What do I say to that, Sasuke-kun?" she asked. "Have I – have we just wasted the past three years?"
Sasuke wanted to tell her no. He wanted to say that she had clearly done something, had gotten stronger, had matured. Instead, he said: "Yes."
Pain flashed across Sakura's features. "There's nothing worthwhile in Konoha? Nothing that would make you want to stay?"
He knew what she was hoping for. She was hoping he would tell her that she was worth it, and Sasuke didn't want to crush that hope. But he couldn't lie to her. If she asked, he would take her with him, but he couldn't stay for her.
Sakura saw Sasuke waver, and she pressed, "If not me, what about Naruto?" Sasuke didn't reply, and she swallowed, hard, hating herself for having to depend on him even now. "I know you care about him, at least."
"Sakura…" He looked down at her, and Sakura suddenly noticed how close they were. When had she moved? When had he? "I thought you were going to let me go."
Immediately, Sasuke regretted his words. Sakura jerked back, eyes wide.
"You're right," she said, thinking about everyone she had let down. Everyone who would never forgive her. What was the point of going back? "You're right," she repeated. "Naruto will be waiting for me. We were going to have dinner together tonight. The three of us." She swallowed, turning away. There was a lump in her throat and tears were blurring her vision. She didn't want Sasuke to see her like that.
He was silent and unmoving behind her, and Sakura whispered, so her voice wouldn't break, "Just answer me one more question," she said. Inside, her mind screamed at her to shut up, but she had to ask, even if it broke her: "Why was Naruto enough to bring you back where I wasn't?"
And then, suddenly, Sakura was slammed up against a tree and Sasuke's mouth was on hers. She had no time to be surprised, only react, as if she had been waiting for this all along – and maybe she had.
Sakura pushed up on tiptoe to lean as far into his touch as she could, lacing the fingers of one hand deep into his dark, soft hair and curling the fingers of the other hand into the collar of his shirt. Sasuke's hands were firm on her waist, supporting her, but not roaming. His nails dug into her flesh through her shirt, but Sakura barely noticed. Only when he pulled away from her, yanking his hands back as if she burned him, did Sakura notice how tightly he had been holding her.
Sasuke was breathing hard, looking as shocked as Sakura felt. She touched her lips, stunned, as his fingers tracked her movement.
"I hope you didn't do that when Naruto brought you back," she said, to break the silence. Sasuke didn't look amused, and Sakura shifted, suddenly very aware of how she was still being supported by the tree behind her. She straightened and hoped Sasuke didn't notice her knees shaking.
Sasuke turned away from her, and Sakura's heart thudded in her chest as she realized he was going to leave. How could she let him go now?
"Sasuke," she said, before he could move, and Sasuke stiffened, not turning. She closed her eyes so she couldn't see him leave her again. "You're welcome."
When Sakura opened her eyes again, Sasuke was gone.
There was a voice in the back of Sasuke's mind, asking him what the hell he thought he was doing, leaving his home again.
There was an even louder voice, closer to the fore, asking him what he thought he was doing, leaving Sakura to deal with the mess. At least last time, she hadn't had to deal with the backlash. It hadn't been her fault. She had been weak, she had been young and irresponsible, she had, most importantly, been unconscious.
Only a mile behind him, she was probably still waiting, bracing herself for everything that was to come.
If there was one thing Sasuke didn't believe in, it was letting someone else take responsibility for his actions. But there was nothing to be done for it. If Sakura had only asked – he had, on some level, been expecting her to ask – for him to take her with him, he would have agreed, no question. It wasn't about wanting her there. It was about knowing that it would've been the best option for both of them.
But with every leap he took, getting further and further away from Konoha, Sasuke's belief that he was doing the right thing grew stronger. Maybe, if he had returned a few months ago, he could have stayed. Maybe he could have gone back. Maybe things could have been different.
But they weren't.
So Sasuke didn't turn back.
It became clear soon enough that Sasuke wasn't coming back. Not that Sakura had really expected him to.
She had hoped he would, of course. She had settled in beneath the low, leafy branches of a copse of trees to wait, back against a thick trunk and eyes closed. Maybe she had just been putting off the inevitable.
Because, of course, Sasuke didn't return.
And so, as the sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, Sakura stood, brushed the dirt from her skirt, and wiped away the tears she didn't remember shedding. Then she turned towards her home – the opposite direction from the one Sasuke had taken and took a deep breath.
She had to keep moving forward.
She told Shikamaru first. It was only fair that he knew how she had messed things up for the both of them, and anyway, he had been waiting when she returned to Sasuke's house, just as she had been expecting him to.
Shikamaru hadn't been happy, but he hadn't taken it out on her. For that, Sakura was grateful, even though she knew she deserved it.
"I'll tell shishou it wasn't your fault," Sakura said. "I'm so sorry, Shikamaru."
She was shaking, and Shikamaru laid a supportive hand on her shoulder, gaze turning concerned.
"Don't worry about it," she said. "We can get him back." When she didn't look convinced, only pressed a hand to mouth to stifle her sobs, he added, "We know he hasn't betrayed the village this time, at least. It wasn't your fault, Sakura. It wasn't."
Sakura forced herself to be calm and, once she was sure she had her emotions in control, she said, "But Shikamaru – this isn't the first time I've let him go."
Shikamaru didn't say anything, and Sakura didn't want to make him uncomfortable, so she didn't continue.
Why can I never make him stay?
Sakura respected Shikamaru, because he respected her. He took her to Tsunade's office, interrupting a meeting between her and Kakashi, and then, to her relief, asked to speak to her in private.
Kakashi-sensei excused himself lightly, but shot Sakura an intent, confused look as he passed. Sakura determinedly avoided his gaze. She wasn't looking forward to telling him that she had let him down – again.
When the door had closed behind them, Shikamaru cleared his throat and stepped forward, but Tsunade held up a hand to silence him. She was staring hard at Sakura.
Sakura's lower lip trembled, and she looked away. She had never done anything to let her shishou done before. And definitely never anything as bad as this.
Tsunade sighed. "What happened," she said flatly.
Shikamaru glanced at Sakura, then opened his mouth to speak, but Sakura spoke before he could.
"It was my fault," she said. Her voice shook, and she cleared her throat. "I asked Shikamaru to leave. I thought – I thought I could trust Sasuke-ku—Sasuke to stay. I didn't think he would leave again, and I couldn't stop him."
Tsunade took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair. Sakura could almost see her internal debate with herself: affection and understanding for her student warring with her anger over Sasuke.
Finally, she met Sakura's eyes again.
"This is serious, Sakura. By sending Shikamaru away, you took away Sasuke's main guard. If you hadn't, he wouldn't have been able to leave." Tsunade rubbed the bridge of her nose, looking tired. "You have a history with Sasuke, and I'm sure you know how bad that looks for you. I'm not saying I think you helped him escape," Tsunade added, catching sight of her expression. "But people will talk. Do you understand that?"
"Yes," she whispered, looking deathly afraid. Shikamaru made a soft noise behind her, and Tsunade shifted her gaze to him for a moment, then back to Sakura.
"But," she said, and Sakura looked up hopefully, "It's not entirely your fault. You are just a Chuunin – there was another guard, a Jounin, stationed outside the Uchiha grounds, and there were guards at the village gates. If he could get past them, Shikamaru wouldn't have made a difference."
Sakura didn't reply. She had made it past them all, too. Just a Chuunin.
"Sakura, I'm going to be honest with you," Tsunade said, putting a hand to her head and looking pained. "You're going to be in trouble, a lot of trouble. People will spread rumors. Things are going to be very hard for you now.
"But," she continued. "I have faith in you. I'm disappointed in you, yes. You let your feelings get in the way of your duty. But Shikamaru let you," she added, shooting him a sour look. Sakura made to protest, but Tsunade cut her off. "I'll have to punish you, not just for the village, but for your sake, too. I'm putting you on probation for three months."
Sakura went cold. Numbly, she nodded. What else could she do?
Tsunade gave her a long, measuring look, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Sakura. But if you can't leave the village, the rumors will eventually die out. You understand, don't you?"
Sakura nodded again.
"You're dismissed," Tsunade said softly.
Sakura turned to leave. She caught Shikamaru's eye as she was heading for the door. He looked sympathetic. Her gut twisted at the kind look in his eyes – one she had never earned from her teammates – and Sakura lurched out the door, wanting – needing – to get away.
Kakashi was standing outside.
"Kakashi-sensei—" Sakura began, needing to explain, but Kakashi held up a hand.
"It's alright, Sakura. One person can't stop Sasuke alone," he said, lone visible eye crinkling into a reassuring smile. "I do wish you had told us, though. That's what teamwork is all about."
Sakura stiffened as Kakashi reached out to pat her on the head, as if she was twelve again.
"I know," she said, voice hollow, "I'm sorry, Kakashi-sensei."
Naruto was the worst. When Sakura met him for dinner, he wouldn't even look up from his untouched bowl of ramen.
"Naruto, I'm so sorry," Sakura said, as soon as she saw his expression and realized that he already knew what she had let happen.
"It's not your fault, Sakura-chan," he said, not looking up from his bowl. His voice was hollow, and Sakura's gut twisted. "When Sasuke wants to leave, no one can stop him."
Sakura swallowed past the lump in her throat and opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Naruto looked up.
"Don't worry, Sakura-chan," he said, trying to smile, "I'll bring him back. I promise."
He had the best intentions, and yet, as Sakura sat beside Naruto and ordered him a fresh bowl of ramen, she couldn't help but feel disappointed.
No wonder Naruto had no faith in her.
Sakura hoped that, wherever he was, Sasuke was happy. She didn't see how he could be, all alone as he was, but she liked to think that he had left them for some reason.
She didn't see Naruto or Kakashi-sensei much anymore. She couldn't go on missions, and Naruto seemed always to be on one. And even when she went looking for Kakashi-sensei, she couldn't find him.
She wondered if they were avoiding her, and missed Sasuke even more. He had held the four of them together, but now, they were more broken than ever.
At least before, they could train, could do something to bring Sasuke back. But what could they do now? Could they ever be together again?
The answer was too painful to think about.
Sakura couldn't even go to the market without people staring at her, talking about her. She didn't pretend not to hear, but she pretended not to care.
It hurt, though, when she picked up a tomato to examine it, and the buzzing started up again. Maybe it was better for Sasuke that he had left. If he had stayed, he would have been subject to this same suspicion.
Sakura walked through the streets on her way home, bag of groceries hanging from one arm as she strolled along, head held high. She couldn't break down in front of everyone. That would get her nowhere.
Sakura turned, and there was Ino, standing outside her family's flower shop, arms full of red roses. Sakura hadn't even realized she had been passing by the shop. How distracted was she lately?
Sakura raised a hand in greeting, lips curving in a half-hearted smile. Ino called her over, so, biting back a sigh, Sakura changed course and headed towards her.
Ino's eyebrows were furrowed in concern when she saw Sakura's tired face. "Are you okay, Sakura?"
"I'm fine," Sakura said automatically, shifting her bag from one arm to the other. "How are you?"
Ino just stared at her. "Don't even try that on me," she snapped. "You're clearly not okay. You don't think I can see that?" Then her gaze softened. "Talk to me, Sakura. I'm worried about you."
Sakura pressed her lips together, trying not to let the weight of the last few weeks – the accusing gazes, the whispers, the knowledge that everyone, even Naruto, even Kakashi-sensei, was judging her – crush her. But then she looked up and Saw Ino watching her, all concern and absolute faith and she felt herself crumble.
"No," she said, voice breaking. "Ino…"
Wordlessly, Ino shifted his roses to one arm and drew Sakura into an embrace with the other. Sakura let her, resting her head on Ino's shoulder and smelling her soft, vanilla scent. Ino rubbed her back in smooth circles, and Sakura closed her eyes. "They all think I helped him leave," she whispered.
"That's stupid, and we all know it," Ino said bluntly. "And that's all that matters. Naruto knows you would never do that."
"Naruto thinks I wasn't strong enough to keep him here," Sakura said, then regretted it when Ino pulled away, staring down at her.
"No, he doesn't," Ino said. When Sakura didn't reply, she added, "Sakura… you don't really think—"
"Forget it, Ino," Sakura said abruptly, pulling back. "I'm just—I'm tired. I'm sorry, I need to – I need to go…"
"Okay," Ino said reluctantly. "But…. Here, have one," she said, holding out a perfect rose to Sakura. "Be careful, thorns. It's on me. Take it," she added, when Sakura didn't move.
Sakura reached out to take the rose, smiling a little. "Thanks," she said. "We'll talk soon, okay?" She didn't wait for a reply, only spun around and headed home at a fast pace, not wanting to see anyone. She needed to get home—
And when she did, the first thing Sakura did, after sliding down the front door to collapse in a heap on the floor, was pull the bag of groceries onto her lap and pull out a round, ruby red tomato and sink her teeth into it.
Juice dribbled down her chin, mixing with the tears coursing down her cheeks. It was too much. Losing Sasuke again was hard enough. But this… this was intolerable.
She winced suddenly, and looked down at the hand holding the rose. Her fingers were bleeding. She had caught them on the thorns.
Sakura pulled the rose and the tomato closer to her, curled up, and let herself cry.
Sakura woke up to thumping behind her, and she blinked, sitting up. She was surprised to find herself still on the floor by her front door. The half-eaten tomato was squashed, spilling juice over her fingers, and the rose was lying, crushed, beneath her bag of groceries.
The thumping continued and Sakura yawned, getting to her feet. She smoothed out her clothes and finger-combed her hair before opening the door.
Naruto was standing on her doorstep, and as soon as he saw her face, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her.
Surprised, Sakura stiffened. "Naruto, what—"
"Ino talked to me," he said into her hair, voice muffled. "Actually, she yelled at me. I'm sorry, Sakura-chan. I don't blame you. I'm sorry I wasn't here with you. I'm sorry…"
Sakura realized he was shaking, and she softened, returning the embrace. "It's okay, Naruto. It's okay…"
"It's not," he pulled away to stare down at her, still holding her by the shoulders. He looked stricken, eyes wet with remorse. "I'm a bad teammate. I'm always so focused on Sasuke that I forget the one who's still here."
Sakura smiled. "We've all done it. It's okay."
And when Naruto smiled back at her, she actually believed it.
"I'm looking for him," Naruto said. "While you're on probation. I'll find him, and we'll bring him back. I promise." He flashed her a thumbs-up, and Sakura remembered the last time they had done this. She wasn't going to fall apart again.
She straightened, lifted her chin, and looked Naruto in the eye. "We will. I promise."
Two months had already gone by when Sasuke saw Naruto again. He stormed right into his tiny, rundown apartment in Amegakure on a rainy day, shattering a window and scuffing the floor. Sasuke raised an eyebrow at him, even as he slipped, instinctively, into a defensive stance.
Naruto stayed right where he was, by the window, not seeming to notice the rain pattering through the window and onto his back and arms. He looked angry – and maybe a little hurt. Sasuke waited for the pleading to start.
"Sakura-chan doesn't smile anymore," was all Naruto said.
Sasuke blinked, unconsciously straightening and letting down his guard. He hadn't been expecting that. "What?"
"Sakura-chan doesn't smile anymore," Naruto repeated. "What did you do to her?"
"I didn't do anything," Sasuke said. but he hesitated, and Naruto caught it.
"Don't lie to me," he snarled. "It isn't like the last time you left. Sakura-chan is unhappy. She won't smile, she won't laugh. She just works all day. I barely see her anymore. You broke her."
Sasuke frowned. "I didn't. Sakura isn't that weak."
Naruto looked surprised. Then he seemed to remember himself, and resumed glaring at Sasuke. "You don't know what she's going through back home," Naruto said, and Sasuke braced himself. "Ever since you left – again – while she was with you, everyone's suspicious of her. everyone blames her."
Naruto moved so quickly Sasuke didn't have time to react, and suddenly, he was being pinned to the wall, one large, tanned hand around his throat. Naruto's eyes were blazing, flashing with fury.
"Why did you leave again, Sasuke? After everything we went through to bring you back? What the hell do you have here?!"
Sasuke didn't reply, didn't even move to free himself from Naruto's hold. Instead he looked around unseeingly at his apartment. His small, lonely apartment. His pathetic existence, always wary of getting caught. He couldn't even be a ninja anymore. What was he doing here?
Naruto stepped away, looking appalled. His eyes were back to their normal bright, cheerful blue.
"Sasuke…" he began, backing away. "I'm sorry. I – I didn't mean to do that. Sasuke…"
Sasuke held up a hand to cut him off and cleared his throat. "I deserved it." He was willing to admit that much.
"Come back, Sasuke. please. We need you. Sakura-chan needs you. I promise I won't let them do anything to you—"
Naruto looked like Sasuke had just slapped him. "'No'…?" he echoed faintly. "What do you mean, 'no'? did you even hear what I—"
"I heard," Sasuke said, heading toward the window and crouching down to scoop of the shards of glass littering the floor. "And I'm not going anywhere." He looked up at Naruto. "I'm staying right here. You can tell Sakura that."
Naruto's expression cleared. "Right here," he said.
Sasuke nodded. "I'm not going anywhere."
Naruto stared at him for a long moment, then blew out a breath, shaking his head. "You can't ever say things straight, can you?" he said. "Okay. I'll tell her."
Sasuke nodded again as Naruto passed him, headed for the window again, and he turned to face him.
"You know what I've noticed?" he asked, then continued, before Sasuke could reply (not that he would have), "You won't thank anyone but Sakura-chan. Why do you think that is?"
Sasuke was silent.
"Yeah," Naruto said. "Think about that. I want you to give her the answer."
Naruto was the one to hold up a hand this time, and Sasuke fell silent. "It's okay," he said, though his voice was strained, "I always knew I didn't stand a chance. Just… don't blow yours, okay?"
And then he was gone.
"Sakura-chan. wake up."
Sakura groaned, rolled over, and opened her eyes, squinting through the dark at the figure by her bed.
"Naruto…?" She yawned. "What are you doing here?"
"Breaking you out," he said, and Sakura finally noticed how hard he was breathing. "I found Sasuke."
Suddenly awake, Sakura sat up. "What?" She rubbed her eyes, trying to kick her brain into gear. "Where is he? You didn't bring him back with you?"
"He didn't want to come," Naruto said, perching on the edge of her bed. "Sakura-chan," he went on, gently, wonderingly, "I think he wants you to bring him back."
Sakura's mouth went dry. "I can't," she heard herself say. "You know I can't. I'm on probation, Naruto. I can't leave—"
"Maybe not legally," he cut in, and Sakura could almost see the mischievous look in his eyes.
She swallowed. "I don't think I can." She had never done anything illegal. Sakura just wasn't the type.
"You have to, Sakura-chan. Sasuke's waiting." When she didn't answer, Naruto found her hand and squeezed it. "I promise I won't let you get caught."
Sakura found herself leaning forward, already persuaded. Then she paused. "Why does he want me to bring him back? I tried already, remember?"
"I won't pretend to understand how Sasuke's mind works," Naruto said, sounding more like his old self, before Naruto had left again, "And I don't even really want to. But I think he finally realized what I told you so long ago: you're his favorite, too."
He sounded a little sad when he said that, and Sakura closed her eyes. "Naruto…"
"Hurry, Sakura-chan," he said, getting to his feet. "We don't have much time."
Sakura's hair was longer. Not as long as it had been when they first formed their team, but reaching almost to her shoulders. She looked tired, and older, somehow, and when Sasuke saw her, something inside of him twisted. Not in sadness or excitement, but in a sort of longing, which he didn't quite understand.
He had spent the last two months thinking about Sakura, and regretting leaving her behind in what he knew would be a bad situation, and one he had caused. If he could only have left when she wasn't around, if she had only stayed unconscious – he wouldn't have felt so guilty.
Maybe if Naruto hadn't appeared in his home, he wouldn't have felt guilty at all.
But he had left when Sakura was watching him, she hadn't stayed unconscious, and Naruto had appeared to drive the knife deeper.
So, before he could stop himself, Sasuke came up behind where she stood in front of his door and said her name.
Sakura jumped and whirled around, hand flying to her chest. Sasuke raised an eyebrow at her. Hadn't she sensed him approaching?
"Sasuke-kun!" Her eyes grew very wide as she took him in. "You're… you're here."
"Yeah." Sasuke shifted uncomfortably, and nodded towards his front door. "Come inside," he said, not knowing what he hoped to accomplish by this. He still didn't know why he had told Naruto to bring Sakura to him. it made no sense to Sasuke.
"Naruto's here," Sakura said quietly, following Sasuke to the door. "Should I call him here…?"
"Do what you want," Sasuke said, unlocking the door and pushing it open.
Sakura stepped through, arm brushing his. She looked around the apartment as Sasuke locked them both in.
It wasn't a big apartment. One room, with a tiny kitchen to one side and a futon shoved in the corner. It was dirty and ugly and mostly empty. There was little furniture, and no decorations. Just a plate of tomatoes on the counter, and a picture on the stand beside his bed.
Sakura turned slowly and met Sasuke's gaze. "This is where you live now," she said.
"And is this better than Konoha?" she asked. When Sasuke didn't reply, she pursed her lips, stepping further into the apartment, taking everything in. Where Sasuke lived now. Where he slept and ate and was. What he had left them for.
"I guess I couldn't give you a reason to stay," she said. she wouldn't look at him now, but Sasuke could see her lower lip trembling, and the sight made him hesitate for a moment, before he took a breath and spoke.
"Do you hate me?"
"Sasuke-kun—" Her voice broke on the suffix, and Sasuke saw her curl her hands into fists. As if she was going to raise a hand against him. Neither of them could hurt the other; even he had realized that by now.
"We went over this—"
"Sakura." And she finally looked up, eyes dry, but shining with sadness.
"No," she whispered.
Sasuke took a step closer. "Do you love me?"
He was staring at her so intently, she couldn't look away, much as she wanted to turn, to run, to be anywhere but there, in front of him, at that moment. Why wouldn't Sasuke just leave her alone?
"Yes," she said, so softly he wouldn't have heard her if he hadn't known what she would say.
"Why?" He was right in front of her now, only half a foot away, and she looked distinctly uneasy.
"Because I don't know how not to anymore," she said. "And I don't want to learn."
Sasuke turned away sharply, curling his hands into fists. This wasn't going to be easy.
"Why should I?" she cut in angrily. "What gives you any right to tell me what to do? You have nothing on me, Sasuke!" She was quiet for a moment, blazing with fury. Then, suddenly, she slumped. "Come back, Sasuke-kun. Please. Everything will be okay—"
Sasuke didn't reply, and Sakura fell silent, staring at him.
"You know, maybe it was a good thing you hadn't kissed me before you left the first time," Sakura told him honestly. "Because it was so much harder to let you go this time."
They were silent for a moment, Sakura staring thoughtfully at Sasuke, and Sasuke pretending to look anywhere but her.
Sakura sighed. "Sasuke-kun," she said quietly, "Why did you kiss me?" When he didn't look at her, she clarified, feeling oddly pleased that she had to: "When you knocked me out – or thought you had – I mean."
"I don't know," Sasuke said irritably. Hadn't they gone over this?
"You do know, Sasuke-kun," she said, drawing closer. "You never do anything without a reason, even if it's a stupid one."
"Because you wanted me to," Sasuke said, still keeping his head turned stubbornly away. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sakura halt, three feet away, looking decidedly unimpressed.
"How would I have ever known?" she demanded. "You thought I was unconscious, remember?"
She had him there.
"And why did you kiss me again, after that?" she went on. "You had told me you wouldn't."
Sasuke didn't answer.
"Look at me, Sasuke."
So he lifted his head, glare already fixed in place. He was a bit surprised to see Sakura standing before him, her own eyes narrowed in frustration. She was so close, their clothes were brushing together, but Sasuke didn't be the one to back away first.
"You want to know what I think, Sasuke-kun?" she said, lifting her chin to stare him straight in the eye. "I think you wanted to kiss me."
"You're wrong," Sasuke bit out before he could stop himself. Sakura didn't flinch away, and he repeated himself, less forcefully this time: "You're wrong."
"No," she said, shaking her head, "I'm not. I've been waiting all my life to kiss you, Sasuke-kun, and in one day, you kissed me twice. That's a lot of kissing if you don't even like someone."
Frustrated, Sasuke stepped back and turned his back on her, not caring that he had been the first to turn away. "Just shut up, Sakura."
"Make me, Sasuke-kun."
Something snapped, and before he could stop himself, Sasuke was on her, pressing her into the mattress of his bed, hands heavy on her shoulders, pinning her down. His Sharingan had flashed on, and he had one knee between her legs, but Sakura didn't look afraid.
"Go ahead, Sasuke-kun," she said evenly. "Prove me right."
He made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat and moved to roll off her, but then Sakura had wiggled out of his hold and snaked out a hand to press down firmly on the back of his neck, brought his face down to hers, and kissed him, full on the mouth.
This time was different. This time, Sasuke wasn't the least bit aware of what he was doing. Before, when he had kissed her, he had been so careful not to touch her too much, though when he had broken the kiss had he noticed how tightly he had been holding on to her. He had lost his senses to some level before, but that was nothing compared to now.
There was skin everywhere. Skin, and Sakura. There was a draft against his back, and her hands pressing on his bare chest. Sasuke's hands were – where were his hands? Sakura gasped, and Sasuke yanked his hands away from her chest – but then they were in her hair, angling her head back so he could kiss her more deeply and—
Sakura pulled away first, and Sasuke blinked to shake himself out of his daze. Then he looked around them, surprised to see Sakura sitting in his lap, both their shirts off. Her hands were on his shoulders; his were on her hips, dangerously close to the line of her skirt. He yanked his hands away, shocked, and met her eyes. She stared at him for a moment, gaze steady, even. Calculating. She seemed to be waiting for something, but Sasuke didn't know what. Finally, she broke their gaze.
Silently, Sakura slipped off his lap and onto her feet. She didn't look at Sasuke as she bent for her shirt, and Sasuke looked away, uncomfortable, as she pulled it on.
"My only question, Sasuke-kun," she said, voice shaking, "is why you won't come back and make this easier for all of us."
Sasuke was silent. When Sakura didn't continue, he turned to look at her. She was staring down at the picture on his bedside table, hands clasped to her chest, lips pressed tightly together.
"Why do you keep our picture with you if you don't care anymore?" she said quietly.
Sasuke remained silent. What could he say?
"I'm tired of going back and forth like this, Sasuke-kun. Answer me!" She turned, tossing Sasuke's shirt at him, hard. He caught it, but didn't move to pull it on.
"Why did you tell Naruto to bring me here if you didn't want to come back with me?" she asked, voice rising. "Was it for this? Do you want me to stay here with you? Dammit, Sasuke, answer me!"
Sasuke pulled on his shirt, then lifted his gaze to stare her right in the eye. She was breathing hard, chest rising and falling. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were dark with anger.
"I hadn't planned on leaving. Not then, at least," Sasuke told her quietly.
Sakura stiffened. Her mouth was open, green eyes wide with betrayal. Sasuke shifted uncomfortably. The silence was thick between them until she broke it.
"Then why did you?"
"I don't know—"
"You do know! You always know. Why, Sasuke? What did we do wrong? Why couldn't we make you stay?"
Sasuke didn't answer. He couldn't.
Sakura didn't need him to. She continued: "Naruto, Kakashi-sensei, me… we would've done anything for you. Naruto would die for you. I would've turned my back on my home for you. Just for you." She buried her hands in her hair, squeezing her eyes shut. "How is it possible, Sasuke-kun, for us to love you so much when you don't care enough about us to stay with us?"
She opened her eyes, and they were dark with fury. "You broke our team, Sasuke-kun. You broke us."
And then, as if she couldn't stand to look at him anymore, Sakura whipped around to leave.
"Sakura," Sasuke said.
She didn't stop, didn't even falter.
"Sakura," he pressed."
Still she didn't hesitate. She was at the door now.
"You're really," she said, voice catching, "Really annoying, Sasuke-kun."
And then she was gone.
Sakura didn't know what Sasuke wanted anymore. But when she had met up with Naruto, at the border to Amegakure, she found she didn't – couldn't – care anymore.
"He didn't come back," Naruto had asked, looking shocked. "I really thought he would this time…"
"Yeah, well." Sakura cleared her throat. "He didn't. And Naruto, I don't think we can do this anymore. Sasuke-kun knows what he wants. And we'll just have to trust him on this. We need to say goodbye to him now."
And now they were back home, in the forest, waiting for the guards at the gate to trade shifts. Naruto was watching the gates, and Sakura was watching him.
Naruto's blue eyes were calm, not stormy with despair as they had been for so long. There was a resigned set to his jaw, and if he looked sad, he looked like he understood.
Sakura only hoped Kakashi-sensei would be so understanding. But he had to be. He had taught them, raised them to be so strong.
But he would miss Sasuke, too. He hadn't even gotten a goodbye.
Sakura stifled a sigh, just as Naruto said, "They're here. Let's go."
They broke out of the cover of the trees, and Sakura was surprised to see Shikamaru and Hinata at the gates. Hinata smiled at them, burning red when Naruto thanked her, and Shikamaru only rolled his eyes at Sakura and said, "Get in, troublesome woman."
Sakura smiled wide at him. She owed Shikamaru so much by now. "Thank you," she whispered, brushing past him.
"Shikamaru's a good guy," Naruto said.
Sakura nodded. "He really is," she said, wondering how it was that an outsider could care more about the four of them than their own (ex, Sakura amended) teammate did.
Then she shook the thought off. She had to get home. And then she needed to stop thinking about Sasuke, once and for all.
She could do it this time.
Just as she thought it, however, Sakura felt an all-too-familiar presence, and she gasped – and then she and Naruto were skidding to a halt and Kakashi was standing in front of them.
"Where have you been?" he asked, biting off the words.
Sakura shifted uneasily. She had never seen Kakashi-sensei so angry, and especially not at her. "We were just – we were—"
"We went to see Sasuke," Naruto said, not backing down.
Kakashi turned his glare on him. "Sakura's on probation."
"And Sasuke's our teammate," Naruto said. "You said that teammates matter more than the rules."
"He's not your teammate anymore," Kakashi said. "He didn't come back."
Naruto faltered, and Sakura glanced at him, then turned her gaze to Kakashi-sensei, lifting her chin defiantly.
"We know," he said. "I'm sorry, Kakashi-sensei. It won't happen again. Report me if you have to."
Kakashi stared at her for a long moment. Then he smiled. "You're still my student, Sakura," he said, patting her on the head, "I won't rat you out."
He walked away then, as if nothing had happened, and Sakura stared at his retreating figure, feeling numb.
"He's still our friend," Naruto said quietly to himself, as if he didn't quite believe it.
Sasuke-kun does everything for a reason, Sakura reminded herself.
So what had been his reason for this?
It was time Sasuke asked himself some hard questions. And, more importantly, it was time he answered them.
What had Naruto asked him? Why do you only ever thank Sakura-chan?
And what had Sakura asked? Why was I not enough?
Sasuke sank into his bed, palms pressed to his closed eyelids. He was tired. He was miserable. Training had been a constant companion since he was a kid. Improvement was always a goal. And now he had nothing.
Sasuke missed the trees and the sun and the too-hot air of the village he had grown up in. He missed his family home. What had happened to it since he had left again?
Sasuke rolled over and opened his eyes. He was faced with the picture of his newly-formed team. It had only been three years, and it felt like a lifetime ago, when all he had known was hate for Itachi. Life had been lonely then, but it was lonelier now.
What was he supposed to do now?
What would his brother have wanted him to do?
His apartment seemed emptier than it ever had before.
"Why wasn't I enough?"
Sasuke closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
He dreamed of sunlight on his face and green all around him.
"Why do you only ever thank Sakura-chan?"
Sasuke woke up, and finally knew the answer.
The route back to Konoha was one he had never taken alone, and yet, Sasuke had no problem finding it. He ran, faster than he had even when leaving, even when he needed to get away from any possible pursuers.
He didn't stop once he had gotten through the gates, though he did think, briefly, that they needed better guards.
He didn't stop when he passed Ichiraku, or even Hokage Tower. He didn't stop until he had caught up to Sakura's signature chakra, and then he looked around.
It was the Uchiha manor.
She was staring around her, scanning for people. Sasuke understood. It probably looked bad for her to be visiting his old home. She hadn't noticed him yet, though, and Sasuke finally uncloaked his chakra so she could sense him.
She did, almost immediately. And she stiffened. But she didn't look around for him.
"Go away," she said, voice flat. "Things are bad enough for me."
Sasuke stared down at her from the roof he was perched on. Her hair was still too long, tumbling around her neck and shoulders in messy spikes.
There was a mark on her that Sasuke had made. A part of her that belonged to him, that belonged to them.
Even when he had been in Oto, Sasuke thought more about Sakura than anyone else, even more than Naruto. Sakura had been tied to the night he left everything behind. He couldn't think of Konoha without thinking of Sakura. Sakura and home were inseparable, in Sasuke's mind, the same way Naruto and team were, or Itachi and family.
Sakura was home.
"I'm not leaving," Sasuke said, leaping down nimbly from his perch. He landed softly ten feet away from her, then straightened, waiting.
"You're not allowed here," she snapped.
"It's my home," he said, staring straight at her.
"Not anymore," she said, looking away. "We're finally free of you, Sasuke-kun. Don't do this now."
Sasuke ignored her. He had been so confused, for so long, pushing Sakura away, then calling her back, only to run again when she got too close. He was done. He was home now. For good.
He wasn't stupid enough to think he would go unpunished. But he could take it. He would take it. There was nothing else left for him anymore. His brother was dead. His goal was accomplished, and the truth had left him hollow. All he had left was his home.
"Sasuke," Sakura snapped. "You had your chance to come back. You can't anymore. Get out of here before you get me caught. I'm on probation," she added bitterly.
"Because of me."
"Who else?" Sakura said. "The village hates me, they won't trust me anymore. You ruined my life, Sasuke-kun. Why come back in it?"
Sasuke was silent. Sakura's words were cutting, but the tone of her voice was worse. He had never heard her so angry, and especially not at him. Just how bad had the last two months been?
Sasuke flicked his gaze to the house behind Sakura. She noticed, and tensed.
"What are you going here?" he asked her.
"It's not your house anymore, Sasuke," she said defensively, crossing her arms over her chest. "I've been staying here."
Sakura grit her teeth. "I don't need to answer your questions. I'm leaving." She turned around and stomped towards the door of his house. Sasuke could appreciate the irony.
"Sakura," he called.
She faltered, then continued on. Sasuke said the only thing that he knew would shock her into staying.
"I don't like girls with long hair."
Sakura stopped. Slowly, she turned. "No?" she said, cautiously.
"No," he said. "Did you really think I did?"
"Well, I was young…" She coughed, touching her hair. Then she scowled. "All I wanted was to impress you. All I want is to make you notice me."
"I do," he said, so quietly he wasn't sure she had heard him.
"I thought we were making real progress," Sakura went on. "I thought, this time, things would we be different. We could be a real team."
Sasuke said, cautiously, "We can be. Now."
"How do I know you won't leave again?" she asked. "How do I know I can trust you this time?"
"Like you trust me?" she demanded, thinking back to that day in his hospital room when he told her he didn't. it felt so long ago, but so little seemed to have changed.
Sakura's eyes flashed up to meet Sasuke's, shocked. His expression was blank, smooth as stone.
"I was lonely," he said evenly, then shrugged. "Because I didn't have you."
Sakura's heart thudded in her chest. "You're back for real?" she whispered. Sasuke nodded. "Why did you come back? why now?"
"I came back," Sasuke said, "For you."
There was a roaring in her ears as Sakura stared up at him, stunned. Had Sasuke said—did he mean—
Sakura turned her back on him. "I can't deal with this, Sasuke-kun. I don't know what you're trying to say, but leave me out of it." She began to walk away again, not knowing why she was doing this, or why he was doing this or why they couldn't just be together properly, but Sasuke's voice stopped her, again.
Sakura's breath left her and she closed her eyes. "Sasuke-kun—"
And suddenly, Sasuke was right behind her, pushing aside her curtain of hair, and leaning down to the spot on the base of her neck that he had struck so many times.
Sakura was just about to spin around and shove him away when she felt the first brush of lips against the back of her neck, and she froze. Then, again, more insistent now, Sasuke trailed his lips along the base of her neck, and then came his fingers, touching but not pressing, and her breath caught.
Sakura didn't move.
"Sakura," Sasuke said from behind her, and her heart thump against her chest, until he continued, and then Sakura felt her heart stop. "I'm trying to tell you… thank you. For bringing me home."
Sakura turned, eyes very wide, and very green. They were shining with a hope Sasuke knew she was trying to resist.
"You're back," she said.
Sakura broke into a bright, beaming smile, eyes brightening. It felt like it had been so long since she smiled like this, straight from the heart. Part of her couldn't believe it, but she knew that, finally, it was real.
"Sasuke-kun…" She began, then stopped. "You should tell Naruto. He'll be so happy."
"Later," he said, staring down at her. How long had it taken him to get to this point?
They both knew it wouldn't be easy. Sasuke would be in a lot of trouble, and the villagers wouldn't be so welcoming this time. Kakashi wouldn't be easily won over, even if Naruto would be. But they had gotten this far with only each other. They had their friends, and this was their home. They weren't going anywhere else.
"What does this mean," Sakura said suddenly, "For us?"
Sasuke looked blank. "Us?" he echoed. Then he looked up at the house in front of them, the house he had grown up in, and wrapped his fingers around her wrist. With a wry smile, Sakura slipped her palm into his so he could hold her hand.
"Come with me," he said, "And I'll show you."