I babble. I angst. I have not read Naruto in a very long time, because I am not happy. So I make my own rainbows and butterflies and excuses and golden roads to happily-ever-after's. Take that, cannon.
It is nothing truly dramatic. It is, she and he will think later, dismally inadequate, so far as ends and beginnings are concerned. (No one ever told them that the world ends not with a bang, but with a whisper.) But it is what it is and Sakura, reaching out her hand, curling her fingers in a gentle whisper of come on, come on, knows this.
"I'd protect you," she says, voice half plea and half promise.
Sasuke looks at her hand, at the small frailty, scar-free by some trick of chance, and thinks he should walk away. Sakura, he knows, will not follow; there is room for rejection, in the space between her fingers, room for choice. The straightness of her spine (dead-straight: hard and unyielding and strong) and the distance between her eyebrows (not much: she is concentrated, determined, resigned) tell him that she will not try to stop him from being the Sasuke he always was.
But there is also room for something else. There is space – forty-nine inches, Sasuke guesses, for no reason that will register with his conscious mind – for him to cross, to breach, to hopscotch through like in those childhood games he never played. He wonders if this pulsing madness, this insanity that curls in him like smoke to stain his insides with gritty muck, that is eating him alive with a deadly, unyielding precision, exists on the other side. No, he thinks, it doesn't. Forty-nine inches – two steps, three at most – and he could be back in the world beneath the Leaf, the land of laughter echoing in the air, where battles are fought over tomatoes and your best friend would go to war over ramen.
I could be saved, he almost thinks but doesn't.
Sakura stares at him, eyes open wide beneath he furrowed brow. Behind the strength her eyes are the same as they have always been.
I could be home, he does think, even as he tries not to.
There is a little truth, hidden in Sasuke's brain, buried deep below the gray matter, lurking behind the black anger and despair, counteracting all that gloom and doom with echoing laughter and the particular shade light takes on when it shine through the trees. He tries to pretend that it is not there, that it has never been there, that it has no hold on him, no control, no place in his mind or body. Often, he denies it, refuses it, spends hours alone in dark rooms, focusing on nothing more than ridding himself of it forever.
The trouble is, it's like breathing: natural and easy and he does not even stop to consider he's doing it, most of the time. But when he does notice, he tries to stop, and it is just like holding his breath; will power only gets you so far, through so many torturous seconds before you're back at it, sucking air like a fool, making up for loss time, because, idiot, you cannot not breathe. And Sasuke, Sasuke cannot not -
The little truth is this: Sasuke loves Sakura and Naruto.
She appears out of the trees, silent as a ghost (or, more realistically, a highly trained, highly competent ninja), chakra so tightly controlled it might as well not exist, and Sasuke's first thought goes something like this: Sakurasakurasakurasakuraimissedyouhellohellosakurasakurasakura.
His second thought is to pretend the first never was.
And then he stops thinking, because thought is obviously dangerous, and if he doesn't stop thinking, right now, this very second, it will occur to him that she is beautiful and she has grown and damn if she doesn't still have the most perfect chakra control he has ever seen.
He draws his sword.
And Sakura, smiling sadly, asks him why.
Sasuke is tired of hating.
He is tired of living his life on a treadmill of revenge that never seems to end, that keeps him going and going and going, always with a new goal and never with anything accomplished. Once, long ago, in another world and another time, another mindset, another Sasuke - once he imagined he would finish. He imagined that his mission would end, that he could avenge his losses and be fullfilled, be finished, be done.
He knows, now, that this will never end. That this madness he feels, pulsing and crawling through him like some giant snake to eat up everything he once thought he was and turn it sour and sick, is a part of him. His choices, every damn one, have put him here, in black and red robes and with dying eyes. There is nothing for it. He is Uchiha Sasuke, and he was born to hate.
And so he does, even as it kills him.
He does not give her the benefit of time to prepare herself. He does not, truthfully, give himself the time either, though it is for entirely different reasons. Two seconds after their eyes meet, and he is on her, sword out, eyes blazing, letting the feral chakra pulse through his mind and block the sudden onslaught of stop! this is sakura sakura sakura.
"Why?" She asks again, face a breath away, holding his sword back with a kunai, not nearly as scared or weak as she should be. And it the way she says it, the way she stares unabashedly right into his eyes, the way her words lilt on anger and accusation instead of fear. It is the way his heart is thumping traitorously at her nearness, at the growth he sees in her abilities and character, at the fact that this is Sakura, Sakura who belongs to him and has always belonged to him and who he has never let go of. (Who he belongs to and who he has always belonged to and who he loves, deep and secret and against his wishes, but still there, still always, still in every breath he takes because she is Sakura, Sakura of green eyes and kind hands and desperate please and undeserved devotion and he loves her, damn it all, he loves her and - )It is the fact that he will kill her all the same.
"Because I can't care," says Sasuke, mouth a sneering growl.
"Can't," says Sakura, giving a mighty heave that has Sasuke leaping back "is not the same as don't."
He never dreamed of her or him, in all those years they spent apart. Sleep was for recharging, rebooting, something you did when you were too exhausted to continue, when you were too tired for your brain to conjure images of fear and hate and devastating hope.
But where there were not dreams, there were thoughts snuck between moments of perfect control and exact denial. In the last month, with all its twists and turns and dark monsters clawing from the shadows of his past, she is a safe base, a safe respite, a guilty pleasure because he cannot care but he cannot help his wandering thoughts anymore than he can help his slow descent to blindness.
She's grown, he thinks, deep in his heart-of-hearts. She istaller. Taller than she was at twelve and taller than she was when he last saw her (a few months and several thousand years ago, her face in the background, Sasuke trying to hold his breath and Naruto's screams filling the air). There is a new gauntness to her, a new seriousness; the lines in her face are sharper, drawn together and holding something in. He recognizes loss in her movements, in her stance, in the way her eyes are red-veined and wet-wide.
What happened? he will never ask but always wonder.
And there is a voice that sounds like a long-lost self screaming at him to find whoever it was that has done this to her.
(But how do you find yourself?)
And then Sakura is backed up against a tree, and all her kunai have been spent, and her chest is heaving with every breath she takes.
Sasuke holds his sword to her throat.
"It won't do you any good," she says.
"Of course it will," he says, with the chant of it doesn't matter echoing in his mind, faster and more insistent, weaker and harder to obey.
Sakura shifts, turning her head to look at Sasuke better. The movement pushes her neck forward, towards the sword, and Sasuke moves it away before the metal bites into her. Sakura doesn't seem to notice, but Sasuke does.
"I missed you, you know."
It is very hard to not react.
"It doesn't matter." He moves the sword closer now, out of anger and a sudden fear clawing his belly. Sakura doesn't move away and he cannot bring himself to do anything about it. "Foolish girl," he spits.
"It does matter." Sakura ducks down, rises up, and is suddenly very much not cornered. Sasuke leaps back, desperately terrified of an unarmed girl without any threat in her stance or words. "It does."
"It doesn't." Sasuke needs to attack her. He needs to kill her. He needs to stop these feelings, rushing up from some hidden well deep beneath his belly, warm and soft and familiar. He needs to, because she is undoing something inside him, picking at time-hardened knots and cracking open the ice that covers what was once emotion. He needs to, but he cannot make himself want to.
"I missed you," Sakura says.
And it doesn't matter, it cannot matter, he loves her and it makes no difference, but he is weak and he is tired and she is Sakura and she is here and by God, how this hurts.
Sasuke damns himself:
"I'm sorry," he says, but what he means is: "I missed you too. I love you too."
From Sakura's smile, he knows she understands.
"I promise, Sasuke," she says, "I promise. I won't let them hurt you. I won't. I won't." She stamps her foot, clenches her fists, and she would look like an angry child but for the fact that the Earth trembles beneath her feet. Watching her, Sasuke wonders if it is possible to be swallowed up by sadness.
"I can't," he tells her, sword in its sheath so he doesn't know what to do with his hands and is instead standing there, awkward, seven years old because that was the last time anything mattered. "You don't want me to. I'm – I'm not." He pauses, swallows hard, wonders what to do with his hands, and watches the way Sakura shakes her head because she understands him better than anyone, and that's still not at all. "I'm not good. I'm not sane. I'm not worth anything. I'm not who you think I am."
"You're Sasuke," she says, all breathtaking trust and blind faith. "You're Sasuke."
For a second, her voice makes him forget and he almost takes those last few steps.
"Sakura," he says, teeth clenched, a prayer she'll never think him capable of, a plea that she will never understand because she will never know how much he cares, and it is the last straw.
He does not walk away and she does not chase him. Instead, she sways on her feet, blinks once twice three times, almost reaches for him but doesn't, and says, "Goodbye, then, Sasuke" before turning around.
This time, she leaves him.
It doesn't matter, says the voice, cool and slimy and eating him slowly.
The dark is creeping back from wherever it was Sakura scared it off to. He feels himself falling back into a hole he didn't even realized he'd escaped, sinking back into someone he never wanted to be, dying dying dying from the inside out.
And a world ends like this: Pink-haired blowing in the wind, green eyes tear-bright and almost-not-quite-over-full. Black eyes watching a red shirt retreat back into a world of could-have-beens. Three seconds, four. Sasuke, suddenly, breathtakingly, unbelievably sure, positive, more certain than he has even been.
His thoughts run like crayons in the sun, like a liquid rainbow; bits and pieces and colors of a life he has tried not to remember, did not want to remember, but always held inside, near and dear, gushing through his thoughts in a frantic tumult, flooding over the blackblack and coloring it real.
(Naruto, twelve years old and bleeding all over. Naruto, fourteen and angry, vulnerable in his passion. Sakura, fourteen and there too, weak too, tearing up and close enough to catch, close enough to kill. But I could never hurt you.)
He does not think on it. He feels and he knows and there is a single phrase that runs circles on his silent tongue. It matters.
His shoulder bumps Sakura's.
She looks up. Slowly. A lifetime passes. The ghost of a smile and a once-upon-a-time flicker across her face.
She looks back to the path beneath her feet and follows it home, certain in Sasuke's presence at her side.
And it cannot matter that he loves them, but, somehow, it always does.