Title: Motions in Stilted Time
Series: Naruto (written April 2006). Part one of the Destinations Series.
Pairings: Sasuke/Sakura, and others.
Summary: Love is not a fairy tale for the faint of heart.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi. Seriously, these stories don't even fit into the canon time line anymore, urgh.
Motions in Stilted Time
"She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
The day she got married, her mother cried as she finished doing her make-up.
"There," said her mother, wiping a tear as she pinned the last blossom into Sakura's expertly piled hair, "now you're beautiful. Like a flower."
And she was.
Naruto was waiting for her outside the dressing room. When he saw her, his face broke into a brilliant smile as he pulled her into a crushing hug that swept her off her feet and knocked the breath out of her lungs.
"Naruto!" she laughed. "My dress!"
"Sorry, sorry," he grinned, twirling her one last time before letting go of her waist. "Got a little carried away. You look great, Sakura-chan."
"You don't look too bad yourself," she said, giving him the once-over. Even in his black suit and tie, Naruto managed to pull off a kind of roguish charm that he'd never quite grown out of, and probably never would. He seemed genuinely happy. She searched his face for a sign of discontent, a crack in the mask, and came up empty.
"Shall we?" he extended his hand to her. "Don't want to keep the groom waiting."
They walked, arms linked, down the corridor and into the main ceremonial room.
"Did Ino do these flower arrangements? They look wonderful!" She could almost picture her friend sitting up late the night before in her parents' porcelain-tiled basement, long hair pulled up into a neat bun, face pinched in concentration, long white fingers dancing nimbly over the daffodil and gardenia, furiously plucking stray leaves and tucking loose petals into place.
"Uh, yeah," said Naruto, suddenly flustered, "about that. Ino said to tell you she's sorry she won't be able to make it today. Had a mission at the last minute."
"Oh," she said, carefully averting her eyes. "That's a shame." It really was. She'd wanted all her friends to be here today, to take part in her happiness. But she couldn't let it bring her down. It was her wedding day.
"Ah, there's the lucky husband-to-be," Naruto's eyes lit up in the way they only did for Sasuke, and it made Sakura smile. They were still such little boys sometimes.
Sasuke had been the handsomest boy in the village at the age of twelve, and his looks seasoned well with age. Unlike Naruto, his perfectly tailored suit gave him a regal and somber appearance, like a man who had been born and bred for raucous gatherings and stately banquets. His scowl, however, as she noticed with a silent grin, hadn't changed one bit since their Genin days.
"Are you ready?" he asked when Naruto had handed her over and wandered off to join the rest of the groom's party to partake in the task of getting thoroughly inebriated.
"As ever," she beamed up at him, eager to show him how happy she was. He didn't smile back, but she could swear his eyes got a little lighter, just before he turned away from her to face the front altar. She followed suit, leaning gently on his arm, and together, they made their way towards the future she'd dreamed about since she was old enough to scribble her first love note addressed to 'Sasuke-kun'.
It should have been the happiest day of her life.
Her first night as married woman was spent alone in a cold king-size bed in the master's bedroom of the Uchiha compound's main house.
"Didn't you tell them it's our wedding night?" She tried to keep the sullenness out of her voice, and failed at the last second. Oh well, it wasn't as if she weren't completely entitled to feel this way.
"It's an emergency," Sasuke replied, pulling on his armor and shin-guards. "They need me down there."
Sakura lowered her head and looked down at her hands folded tightly in her laps, swathed in the expensive silk nightgown she'd picked out months ago just for tonight. She remembered Ino had been with her that day, and how the other girl had shoved the dress into her hands, saying in an exasperated voice, "Honestly, Sakura, salmon with your hair? Red is sexy, you can't go wrong with red."
"I'm an ANBU captain," Sasuke continued stiffly, already heading for the door. At the threshold, he turned around look at her, and when he spoke, there was a tiny tremulous note of uncertainty laced in his voice, "You understand, don't you?"
A short pause followed his question. Then she sighed, and said, "Of course I understand," hoping her smile didn't waver too much. Sasuke didn't seem to notice. He nodded once, and disappeared down the dark hallway.
Left alone, Sakura lay awake nearly the entire night, listening to the muted ticking of the grandfather clock in the living room. She fell into a fitful sleep sometime around dawn, when the winter sun was just peaking out from beyond the horizon, and a pale half-light was sifting through the window blinds, painting the room in a washed out film of gray.
Of course, Sasuke came back the next morning with flowers and a polite apology. That night they made love in their new bed, and it was everything Sakura had always imagined it would be. Still, she couldn't help but wonder why, when she lay in her husband's arms afterwards, she could not seem to get the sound of steady ticking out of her head.
Later, Sakura found out that Naruto had slept with his first man the night she hadn't sleep with hers. His partner, she learned over their weekly lunch date, turned out to be one of her distant cousins, a very attractive young man who worked as a cloth merchant in a port town twenty miles north of Konoha.
"But I thought you liked women," she exclaimed, blushing a little at the incredulous pitch in her voice. Over the years, Naruto had gotten into various relationships with several different girls, shinobi and civilian alike, none of which had lasted more than a month at most. But he was still young enough, she supposed, to not want to be fettered down, having only turned eighteen last October. She and Sasuke were the first among their circle of friends to have gotten married.
"I do," he insisted, flushing to the tips of his ears. "But I guess I like guys too."
Not knowing how to reply, Sakura took to stirring her black coffee, feeling not a little silly for her gaucheness.
"How do you feel about that?" she finally asked when the silence got too suffocating.
"I dunno," he mused, sipping at his own cup, to which he had added five cubes of sugar. "A bit weird, really. But not bad weird," he added quickly, grinning in spite of himself, "just, you know, weird."
"Yeah," she agreed softly. Their eyes met over the table, and they both smiled in synchronism, albeit a bit awkwardly. She knew things would have to change because of this latest development, but how and to what extent she could not say.
"Guess this means you won't be settling down anytime soon," she said, and giggled at his brilliantly flustered complexion. Then again, maybe things wouldn't have to change so much after all.
The first fight she and Sasuke didn't have was over her job as a full-time medical-nin. She remembered that it was a Tuesday morning, half a month after their wedding.
"I don't really see why it's necessary," Sasuke said as he pulled on his clothing for work. "With my salary as an ANBU, and the inheritance from the Uchiha family fortune, we have more than enough to make do with."
Sakura turned to face the window, biting the tip of her thumb, "But Tsunade-sama told me that I've been doing very well, and she's thinking of promoting me to Shizune's position when I pass my Jounin exam."
It was true. The Hokage had recently praised Sakura's immense progress in the field of chakra cardiodiosis, and had even mentioned the possibility of allowing her to lead her own research team at the clinic in the near future.
Sasuke's frown deepened fractionally, and Sakura felt a painful lump form in her throat at the sight.
"I just want you to have more time around the house," he muttered. "We should start our family as soon as possible. My mother…" Here he trailed off, staring into the distance, and the lump in Sakura's throat sank into the pit of her heart.
"Well," she said slowly, "I suppose that is the higher priority. I could ask Tsunade-sama to take off some hours from my work load. I already have residency, so I guess it wouldn't be too much of a problem."
The blinding smile on Sasuke's face as he kissed her before leaving the house that morning almost made the decision seem reasonable. In the end, she wound up quitting her position at the clinic altogether, unable to watch her co-workers making breakthrough after breakthrough in their own research, while hers sat unattended and forgotten in one of the many filing cabinets that littered the dusty back office.
Only afterwards, when she had spent a few days puttering about the house with nothing interesting to occupy her time, did she begin to regret her haste. She'd never noticed it before, but the large house had a way of stifling her breath, swallowing her whole being into the cold, imposing silence of its shadows.
One day, while she was just rounding a nondescript street corner, overflowing grocery bag in one hand and a maternity magazine in the other, someone suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her into a nearby building.
"Forehead girl," Ino chided playfully, moving her hand from Sakura's elbow to rest around her wrist, "I can't believe you walked by here and didn't come in to say hello."
Outside of missions, Ino still worked part-time at her family's flower shop. This knowledge resided somewhere at the back of Sakura's mind, right beside the nagging thought that she hadn't seen Ino in quite a long time. It was hard to believe she had passed by the shop without even noticing. She must be exhausted.
"Sorry, Ino-pig, I was a bit distracted," she placated. "How have you been lately?"
On second thought, perhaps it was Ino who was the tired one. Up close, Sakura could see the heavy half-circles like moon-shaped bruises beneath her friend's eyes, and the drawn narrowness of her face, like she was shedding the excess, growing smaller, more streamlined by the day. Only Ino's eyes still retained their crafty brightness, a sharp light grey twinkle that spread neatly to the corners of her grinning lips.
"Oh, I'm great, the usual," Ino said airily. Except she wasn't, and this was something Sakura only knew because she had run into Chouji the other day at the supermarket and had squeezed the bit of information out of him. Of course, he hadn't exactly said that Ino wasn't fine. Rather, he had said, and in precisely so many words, that she was 'going through a rough time', and then had looked away sort of hurriedly, almost guiltily. Sakura hadn't pressed the issue, because she'd suddenly noticed at the time that Chouji hadn't been looking his best either. Neither of them, Chouji and Ino, had been quite the same after Shikamaru hadn't come back from that one mission in the Water Country; they'd both kind of drifted places for a while, neither here nor there, and it'd hurt to sit and watch.
It hurt to watch Ino now, smiling a smile full of knives and cutting herself with the sharp edge of her grief, and Sakura didn't really know how to act around her. Much like the way she hadn't known how to act around Ino in the period right after her wedding, when there had been so much to think about, not the least that her best friend had not been there for her on the (supposedly) most important day of her life. Or the way she hadn't known how to broach the subject of asking Ino whether she was still angry at Sakura for marrying Sasuke.
But this wasn't about that, was it? Not at all.
Ino's long fingers were still wrapped loosely around Sakura's wrist, the small calluses tickling slightly at the sensitive inner skin, and standing so close, Sakura thought she could detect the vague scent of white chrysanthemum clinging to the other girl, as if she were a walking funeral wreath.
In September, Naruto began dating Neji, a piece of news which more or less sent shockwaves rippling through the entire village of Konoha. Naruto had by this point grown to not give a damn about what people thought of him, and so had his boyfriend, so for the most part they were reasonably happy. Personally, Sakura still found it difficult to wrap her mind around the concept of those two—and what a massive personality difference—being 'together' in the first place, but as with most things in her life these days, she simply filed it into a corner of her head as another issue to be pondered late at night but never mentioned in the company of others.
Sasuke, on the other hand, hated the relationship, and unlike Sakura, he wasn't ill-disposed to letting his opinion on the matter be known.
"Can't you be a little more supportive?" Sakura asked him one day after the four of them had just had lunch together at Naruto's apartment, and their former teammate had trailed after Neji into the kitchen under the premise of 'cleaning up'. The sounds of splashing water and smothered giggles emanating from said kitchen told a different story.
Sasuke, who had spent the entire meal glowering darkly at the Hyuuga with barely-veiled animosity, and whose only contribution to the conversation at the table had been a few snide remarks regarding his friend's taste in significant others, now turned to her with an annoyed look on his face and deadpanned, "He's not good enough for him."
"You don't know that," she shot back indignantly, at the same time Naruto poked his head, lightly spotted with soap suds, out of the kitchen doorway and asked, "Who's not good enough for who?"
"Nothing," Sakura told him quickly. "Go back to your cleaning."
He didn't need telling twice, as at that moment, a strong pair of arms shot out from behind Naruto and slyly snaked around his waist, pulling him back into the kitchen as he shrieked half-hearted protests. Sakura raised her eyebrow at her husband, as if to say 'See?' but Sasuke's scowl remained firmly in place. Then he made a frustrated noise and, shoving his hands into his pocket, proceeded to stalk out of the room without a second glance.
Sighing to herself, Sakura rubbed soothing concentric circles on her growing tummy, wondering if she would ever be able to understand the people she loved the most.
The day Sakura went into labor, Sasuke was at an ANBU meet outside the village, so it was a smiling and terror-stricken Naruto who rushed her to the hospital, and Ino's thin, clammy hand that grasped hers when she was placed on the maternity table. Sakura had anticipated everything from the very start, so she calmly accepted the pain when it came and methodically went about the procedure as only a (former) medic could. She endured the pain silently, almost objectively, until it all became too much and she passed out in a blinding white haze.
She woke to a too-bright light dancing in her eyes, and in her grogginess, could barely understand what she was doing in this too-white, too-clean room, where the smell of sedatives seemed to linger in the tangled folds of sheets. Then she remembered.
Frantically, she looked around for the red button, and clumsily reached for it, nearly knocking over a vase of white roses standing on the bedside table when her sleepy limbs refused to cooperate. She pressed the button twice and waited, holding her breath, fingers clutching tightly at the collar of her hospital gown. When a nurse finally came in through the door, the first words out of her mouth were, "My baby. How is my baby?"
Years later, Sakura would still remember, clear as crystal, the crumpled grimace that had slipped onto the nurse's face when she'd heard her question. Try as she might, she wouldn't be able to burn the image out of her mind, nor the memory that her first thought upon seeing it had been a distracted 'How unprofessional.'
"I'm truly sorry," the nurse began, but Sakura had already tuned her out, preferring instead to stare unfocusedly at the vase next to her bed. The stems of white roses were skillfully arranged to tumble artistically over one another in a wild yet tranquil embrace. Must have been Ino's doing, thought Sakura. I wonder where Ino is right at this moment.
She didn't look up when the nurse mumbled one last empty condolence and hastily left the room, closing the door softly behind her. She was still admiring the vase when the door opened again, and someone's heavy footsteps sounded on the white-tiled floor.
She jumped at the sound of her name, and gazed up at Sasuke's frowning face. She was still feeling a little distracted, so it took her a moment to notice that he was still holding his wooden mask in one hand, and that his left eye was blackened and swollen.
"Sasuke! When did you get back? And what happened to your eye?" Strange, how she could still find the energy to be concerned over such trivial things.
"I… Naruto… he came looking for me," Sasuke mumbled, and the black eye was suddenly explained. Sakura looked down at her hands, suddenly feeling very tired.
"How do you feel?" asked Sasuke, his voice dipping and rising oddly, like he was unsure of himself. "I… I heard from the doctor."
"I'm alright," she lied with a forced smile. And then, "I'm sorry, Sasuke."
Sasuke's body went frigid, as if he hadn't expected the apology. He shuffled nervously on his feet like he wanted to say something, but couldn't seem to dig up the words. Sakura wouldn't have cared either way. Caring was a nebulous concept.
People went through this everyday. For every three babies brought into the world, one would not make it, and the unfortunate parents bore the bereavement everyday. Sakura knew this, had seen it many times in the clinic. In this situation, perhaps the parents would cry and curl into one another for whatever comfort there was to be found. But Sasuke wouldn't cry, and she could not, no matter how much she wanted to. So they sat in silence, carefully not meeting each other's eyes, and patiently waited for the pain to pass.
To this day, Sakura still wondered sometimes whether it would have made a difference.
The knock on her front door came at exactly 11:19 PM on a Friday night, when she was just doing the last button of her cotton pajamas before going to bed. By the time she'd reached the door knob, the knocking had turned into persistent banging, and Sakura only had a second to brace herself before she opened the door and found herself with an armful of giggling blonde.
"Forehead girl," Ino slurred, nuzzling her face into the crook of Sakura's shoulder, "what took ya so long?"
"Ino!" Sakura exclaimed in alarm. "Are you drunk?"
"Of course not," the other girl scoffed. "I'm just getting started."
Sakura took in Ino's appearance and felt a frown pull at her brows. Ino's blouse was done up a few buttons too low to be decent, her thin ankles covered in cheap fishnets and twisting at an odd angle as her body leaned heavily on Sakura. Ino's eyelashes were thick with mascara that was beginning to run from the sweat on her flushed face. Sakura was suddenly glad that Sasuke wasn't home to see this.
There had been a time when Ino'd never worn anything more revealing than a midriff shirt. There had been a time when she'd used no eyeliner, pinned up her hair with butterfly hairclips, and teased Sakura over the counter at her family's flower shop, wearing her mother's pink apron. Back then, they would sometimes have gone out together in the evening to eat at some late-night café that'd served too greasy food, and made fun of each other's gluttony. Those had been the days when Sakura'd had no need to worry about fixing dinner or buying toilet paper or waiting on husbands who were never around.
"I'm worried about you, Ino," she said, annoyed at the inadequacy of her own words. "Maybe I should call Chouji, tell him to come pick you up. Or wait here, I'll get my coat and…"
"No way," Ino protested hotly. "The night's just getting interesting. I'm going back out there, right after…"
Lately, there had been a lot of rumors floating around about Ino, how she always brought home strange men and sometimes women, all of whom wore fishnets and too much mascara just like she did. Sakura had never believed any of it. Until now.
"Right after I tell you something," Ino continued, her voice slipping one notch lower so that Sakura had to lean in to be able to make out the words. "I've got a bone to pick with you, Sakura."
Instead of answering, Ino brought her lips closer to Sakura's face, and breathed softly onto her earlobe. The brush of hot air made Sakura shiver.
"You went and got married, Sakura," Ino breathed. "You went and got married and left me all alone."
Sakura's heart leapt into her throat. "Is this about Sasuke?"
"Sasuke?" Ino repeated, looking puzzled. "What does Sasuke have to do with anything? I'm talking about you."
Sakura opened her mouth, but even as the question was still forming in her mind, Ino's lips descended onto the bottom-left corner of her right cheek, where they rested a moment too long to be an accident. Sakura's body froze at the touch: Ino's lips were very soft, cool, and a little slippery from the lip gloss she wore. This couldn't really be happening.
"I..Ino?" she stuttered weakly, and the moment the words left her mouth, Ino's eyes snapped open like a catch and she sprang away from Sakura so quickly that she nearly stumbled and fell.
"I… I'm sorry, Sakura," Ino mumbled, eyes transfixed on the carpet at her feet. "I don't know what came over me. I'll… I'll be leaving now."
Sakura stared dumbly at her retreating back, not trusting herself to speak. Ino's stiletto heels clapped loudly on the concrete beyond the threshold, a sad and defeated clacking that grew distant and then was gone. Sakura's skin was still tingling where the other girl's lips had been.
Two days later, Sasuke came back from his mission all jittery and ravenous. When he roughly pulled Sakura into him, there was a faintly smoldering look in his dark eyes that titillated her. As her husband's mouth trailed burning kisses on her body like honey being poured down her spine, Sakura told herself that this was right, that she already had everything she wanted. She did not think about thin fingers that caressed in soft, fluttering touches, nor did she imagine pale skin and long blonde hair in the arms of some woman who wore fishnets and too much eyeliner. She did not think about any of that at all.
"Neji's getting married."
Sakura's eyes shot up from her cup (tea today; she'd stopped drinking coffee when she'd gotten pregnant for the second time), wild and disbelieving. "He's what?"
"He's getting married," Naruto repeated, his head slightly turned away from her. "Some kind of arranged deal. Told me yesterday, right after he'd announced that he was moving out."
"Oh, Naruto," Sakura whispered, bringing a hand to her lips. A small part of her smugly piped up that Sasuke had been right all along. She ignored it soundly.
"Yeah, well, I guess I should've asked before jumping to all the wrong conclusions," he chuckled humorlessly. "But you know me. Reconnaissance? Never was my forte."
There was an uncomfortable pause, in which they both stared glumly at their beverages and played with the tips of their fingers. This scene was becoming something of a fixture in their friendship, a fact which reassured Sakura not at all.
It was Naruto who first broke the silence. "Maybe it's time I settled down like you said. Find a nice girl, grow a family, and all that jazz." Then he burst out laughing, and continued, "Like that would ever work, right?"
Sakura furrowed her brows in confusion. "Why not?"
Naruto fixed her with an earnest, piercing look, "Because I'll never find a girl like you."
The seriousness of his tone staggered her, bringing to surface the memory of her wedding day. Suddenly, there it was, the expression she'd looked for then and hadn't found, an honest, longing wistfulness that dulled Naruto's sparkling blue eyes and instilled sadness into the line of his mouth. Sakura found that she could not stand looking at him, and had to lower her head.
She wondered suddenly how it could have been, how their lives might have turned out had things been different. Maybe she should have ended up with Naruto, or maybe it was Sasuke whom Naruto should have been with. Or perhaps none of them should have ended up with anyone at all. Perhaps they didn't really deserve other people, and that was why they kept messing up, even when they had everything going for them. Perhaps she and her teammates had been destined to a life of solitude, so that they wouldn't be able to hurt anyone with their astounding stupidity.
Could have. Should have. Would have.
"Sometimes I think I'm better off being alone," Naruto wondered out loud, eerily echoing her thoughts. "That's a rather horrible idea, isn't it?"
"Not so much," she answered after a moment's consideration. Naruto's eyes widened momentarily. Then he shook his head ruefully, and took to staring out the window at the heavily falling rain.
By the time Sakura had had her third miscarriage, they were finally ready to admit that something might be amiss.
"You can't continue like this," Tsunade said sternly after she'd finished doing Sakura's check-up. "It's not possible. Perhaps you two should look into adoption."
The Godaime had always had a way of being too frank with words. Her suggestion slapped across Sakura's skin like a whip, leaving raw stinging marks that would not go away.
Beside her, Sasuke balled his hands into fists. Sakura could not bring herself to meet his eyes, to watch his face retreat into a slate of stony blankness.
"Isn't there anything you can do?" he grounded out between tightly clenched teeth.
"Medicine isn't magic, Uchiha," Tsunade spat. "I would think your wife's health is of higher concern here. She could die if there's another miscarriage."
Sakura could feel his eyes suddenly boring into her back. She could sense it through her clothes, through her skin. The sensation was not unlike being flayed alive.
"Of course it is," Sasuke bit out impatiently. Tsunade regarded them both with a searching look before dismissing them from her office.
That night, as they lay next to each other in bed, Sakura could almost feel the gap between them stretching, like an ever-growing abyss, gaping and inexorable. For some reason, she didn't seem particularly inclined to do anything about it.
"It'll be alright," Sasuke said, and in the darkness, his voice was gentle. Gentle didn't suit him anymore than lying suited Sakura. They were both aware of this.
"Yes," she echoed. "Everything will be alright."
And then there was nothing but the soft ticking of the grandfather clock, counting away the night.
Things did not get better.
One day, while cleaning, Sakura stumbled upon her old medical kit gathering dust beside a few old clothing trunks in their attic. Against all better judgments, she undid the catch, unfurled a scroll on secondary chakra patterns, and ran her hands over the roughened surface, letting the moldy scent of decaying paper assault her senses.
Moisture had half-ruined the scroll, sending the text running together in a wet, jumbled mess, making it nearly impossible to read. It didn't matter, because Sakura had had the words memorized long ago; they were buried deep in her heart like the dreams she'd once had that had somehow gone astray.
When Sasuke came home that afternoon, he found Sakura sitting at the kitchen table, systematically tearing apart one medical scroll after another with a wildly determined expression on her face.
"It won't ever be okay, will it?" she asked in a hollow voice.
Sasuke didn't answer. He pulled out a chair from the table, and, sitting down opposite her, buried his face in his hands. Sakura reached for another scroll, and felt the silence of the house crushing them both under its weight.
The last fight they didn't have was also the most obsolete. By then, they'd both known for some time that it was over. Going through the motions of it was a way of paying respect to their failed marriage.
"I'm leaving," Sakura told her husband, struggling not to break under the finality of the words. Her fingers curled tightly around the leather handle of her suitcase for strength. One little suitcase. She'd entered Sasuke's house in her bridal gown with flowers in her hair, and here she was leaving with one little suitcase. Irony, Sakura decided, tasted a bit like bile.
Sasuke watched her from the doorway without a word, his tall frame hunched in upon itself. Sakura wondered if he too was regretting it, was wishing he could change, erase, remake everything that had happened between them. If so, then good for him. She was so far past that that the thought barely tugged at her heart, falling away quickly like a stray, wandering leaf.
She didn't go back to her parents' house, choosing instead to stop at a cheap motel on the outskirts of town. The sleepy clerk glared at her over the counter before sullenly handing over the keys to a small one-bedder, and that was how she got to where she was now.
The tiny bathroom was dingy, cob-webbed, and smelled faintly of disinfectant. Under the milky light of the fluorescent bulb, Sakura slowly peeled off her clothing and stood naked in front of the tall mirror, studying her reflection with a disinterestedness one might employ to approach a mediocre piece of art. In the glass, her body was a broad blank plane, a white mass with no distinguishing features, no crooks nor gullies to make it interesting. Pale skin, high forehead, small breasts, and narrow barren hips that could produce nothing but sad lumps of children, all dead before dawn.
Sakura switched on the shower, and hummed to herself a little while she waited for the water to heat up. Then she stood rigid beneath the scalding jets and roughly scrubbed at her skin until it was red and raw. She told herself as her hands moved over her body, "I am cleansing away the old me. Shredding it like a cast-off skin. When I'm done, everything will be new and right with the world again," and kept at it until all the hot water had run out.
Sakura's first morning as a single woman, she stayed in bed till long past noon, stretching her sore limbs over the vast expanse of cheap, scratchy sheets and yawning contentedly to herself. She briefly contemplated getting up to eat something, and maybe later she would drop by the Hokage's office to beg for her job back. The only cure for grief was activity, and anyway, it'd be nice to feel useful again.
Except all that would have to wait, because the sound of insistent knocking had suddenly invaded the peaceful quiet of the room. Wrapping a thin blanket around her shoulders, Sakura dragged herself to the door, feeling a bit irritated at whoever was on the other side. Couldn't a woman get some time to herself these days without the whole village barging in on her?
The door opened to reveal a disheveled Ino, tapping her foot impatiently on the floor.
"Ino?" Sakura asked, surprised. "How did you find me?"
Ino rolled her eyes, pushing Sakura aside to enter the room. "I'm a ninja, Sakura."
Except that didn't answer anything at all. Sakura scowled at the other woman, feeling the tension creeping back into her shoulders. Great. Just when she was starting to feel better. What was Ino doing here anyway?
Her question must have shown on her face, because Ino leveled her a square look and said, "Actually, I got a call from Naruto this morning, and tracked you down here. He's on his way to your house as we speak. Said something about knocking the sense into your husband."
Sakura winced. "Uh, he really shouldn't do that. I'm doing just fine, really, and there's no need…"
"Sakura," Ino interrupted her. "Stop it."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Sakura said quickly, dropping her eyes from the line of Ino's fierce gaze. She tried walking back to the bed in an attempt to compose herself, but her traitorous feet chose that moment to give out under her, sending her swaying tremulously.
Ino caught her.
"I'm sorry," Sakura mumbled. Ino's arms are thin but strong, keeping her from falling. Sighing deeply, Ino pulled Sakura's face into her shoulder blade, and with one hand, kneaded soothing circles on Sakura's back with the tenderness of a girl who had learned to touch so she could comfort the people she loved. Sakura found herself leaning into its softness against her will, breathing in the sickly sweet scent of chrysanthemum on Ino's shirt.
"Sakura," Ino said again, and there was nothing feigned about the gentleness in her voice. The lilting melody of it sent something crumbling within Sakura, and the next thing she knew her tears were falling in hot, eager drops onto Ino's skin. Ino stroked her hair in slow, distracted motions, and kissed the top of her head. "It's okay. You can cry. Here with me, you can cry. Cry for me."
And Sakura did.
She released the long repressed sobs, allowing them to swell and explode forth from her chest like shattering glass. The broken sounds were muffled and stilled in the crook of Ino's neck. She cried for her lost happiness, mourned for the children she had never seen, and finally, for all the mistakes she had made without ever knowing it. Ino held on to her tighter, wrapped around Sakura warmly and securely, as if she never wanted to let go.