Author's Notes: Here's a fluffy, slightly long one-shot that simply wouldn't leave my head. XD I had to write it down or else I wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything else. So yeah, hope you guys like it. ^^ The recent chapters in the manga have left me quite disappointed at the turn of events… but I'm still hopeful that we'll get our SasuSaku in the end.
Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishi—but I sure as hell wish that Sakura didn't.
Of Prayers and Pastries
"A new world", Naruto promised.
And he found himself clinging to it, believing in it, forgoing logic and reason for whatever it was that his best friend lived by.
"A new world", Sakura echoed.
And Sasuke found himself closing his eyes, lowering his guard, surrendering to the warm chakra that engulfed him, healing and mending tissues, and muscles, and bones, and much, much more.
"A new world", Sasuke prayed.
And he found himself abandoning revenge for hope, for life.
Three weeks later, however, he finds himself in the throes of regret.
The promise sounded so tempting, so beautiful, so right amidst the poignant silence of the battle's aftermath. It rang like the tinkling bell of redemption, of salvation, and he was transfixed.
Now, however, he is convinced that the promise is hollow, misleading, and wrongwrongwrong.
He is miserable, he thinks, and it is all Naruto's fault – this is pretty much what he tells the blonde when they meet for their daily training session.
"Bastard, no matter how miserable you may be right now, there's no denying that you're better off than you were when you were still hanging around that megalomaniac uncle of yours."
There is truth in the blonde's statement, but he chooses to ignore this.
"Anyway, you're probably just bitter because you still can't get a girl while I, the great Uzumaki Naruto," the blond pauses for effect and puffs out his chest in pride, "am in a happy and stable relationship with the prettiest girl in Konoha."
A part of him wants to be happy for his friend, but another bigger, darker part wants to lash out, to hurt. So he reconciles between these two wants and throws out an insult – jokingly, of course, but not entirely without malice. A knife hidden within satin.
"The only reason she's with you, deadlast, is because she has a creepy eye problem – a creepy eye problem that automatically disqualifies her from being 'the prettiest girl in Konoha'."
"Byakugan is hardly an eye problem, bastard. In fact, she can see a lot more than other people, which is exactly why she saw how awesome I am right from the very start. Besides, it suits her perfectly. She's beautiful and her pearl eyes are—"
Thankfully, his best friend is dense.
"—yeah, yeah, shut up already. Nobody wants to hear you wax poetic about the Hyuuga."
"—like the moon at nigh—"
"That's just lame."
"Hmph, you're just jealous because the only physical contact you've had with your lady love is when you strangled her."
But stupidity is a double-edged sword.
The stricken, panicked look on his friend's face is telling, and Sasuke can tell that he really did not mean it. He supposes that he should be thankful, but he only finds himself thoroughly insulted. Besides, he was not that affected by the statement. Really, he's okay—he has a monster called 'Guilt' clawing at his innards, but that's okay, he's okay.
"I—sorry, Sasuke, that was so inappropriate, below the belt, really, I shouldn't have—"
"It doesn't matter,' he mutters, cutting off his friend's jumbled apology as he turns around to leave, not wanting to feed the monster further. He does not want to hear this, does not want to be reminded of blood and insanity and death. He does not want to feel guilty and undeserving and wrong. A new world, right? A new world – they all agreed. So why bring up the past? Why—
He is already halfway out of the training grounds when he hears his friend shout after him.
"Sasuke, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean it. It was just a joke, so you, you better not be wallowing in self pity again."
Still, his steps don't falter, even if he does feel like his guts are being wrenched apart by an unanswered question that he cannot even acknowledge.
"I already told you, she doesn't hate you."
Oddly enough, his best friend – sorely lacking in the intelligence department he may be – still manages to give him the answer.
But it does not assuage the monster inside Sasuke, not one bit.
The question, unacknowledged it may be, burns. It scorches his throat, scrambling to be released, to be hurled against the object of his confusion, frustration, and something else that he won't acknowledge (not yet).
It gets to the point where he loses sleep because of it, because of the question, rather than of the usual bloody tatami mats and red, spinning eyes.
It burns – but he has too much pride (or is it fear?) to ask it directly.
So he does the next best thing.
"You", he begins, with a faint trace of accusatory derision in his voice, "are speaking ill of me."
The girl merely raises a brow and speaks in a deadpan voice.
"Sasuke, your past actions speak much louder than any ill rumors I may spread about you."
It is faintly unsettling that this girl no longer bats an eyelash at the thought of making him angry – and a part of him wonders if that is a good or bad thing.
Still, she is unapologetic when she speaks the truth (unlike Naruto) and he appreciates that.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I finally got my first mission from the Hokage."
Her hand unconsciously goes up to touch the Forehead Protector on her head, and her face splits into an expression of unabashed happiness coupled with a fierce determination. For a moment, he sees the hint of pride in her almost-caress on the cool metal, her reverence at the symbol of her new village, her new home – and he thinks about his own forehead protector, scratched and damaged, violated and desecrated. And, like a child, he hates.
'You wouldn't even be here if it weren't for me' – the statement almost makes its way out of his mouth, but then he remembers a look of bewilderment turning into one of disbelief and, finally, into one of pure and utter hurt.
And he remembers a betrayal – a complete, infinitely unforgivable one – and he keeps his mouth shut.
"In case you're wondering, I've been sent out to look for Suigetsu and Juugo. The Hokage has graciously accepted my plea to accept them as citizens should I ever get my own team together again."
Then, almost as if in afterthought, she says as she walks away, "Funny, I used to think people of the leaf were silly little wimps."
Then she stops, turns back, and sends him a pointed, loaded look.
"But now I think I've grown rather attached to their principles and protocols, especially when it comes to teamwork."
He is irked by the much-too-obvious insinuations in her statements, but he knows that he deserves more, far more, than a verbal lashing, so he lets it slide.
In fact, he goes the extra mile and says something he never thought he would.
"Karin, I'm sorry."
This makes her stop in her steps and she looks back at him. Instantly, he is reminded that she was once an Oto-nin, that she was never from the leaf, that—
"I won't forgive you."
But then her face softens.
"Not until I find Suigetsu and Juugo. And then, then Sasuke, maybe we'll all forgive you together."
She smiles then – Karin, the prison guard from Sound who used to experiment on skin and souls – a real smile.
And at that moment, he envies her.
"Then maybe – just maybe – I'll put in a good word to her for you."
But envy is quickly replaced by gratitude.
One day, he sees her emerge from the heavy oak door of the library carrying a stack of books. His sense of chivalry, dormant though it has been for the better part of his adolescent years, compelled him to approach her and help her carry her burden. However, before he could act on that urge, he sees someone else emerge from the double doors, someone unsavory.
He has never liked this boy, this black-haired and pale-skinned reminder of his temporary abandonment of Team Seven.
Still, his presence is something that Sasuke knows he has to contend with – a consequence, so to speak, that he has to live with.
But this—this is a bit too much.
The muted sound of their conversation is wafting over to him as he watches them walk away – and he hears how easy it is for them, this cheery exchange of ideas interjected with light banter, and he can't help but resent them a bit.
Briefly, he considers approaching them.
But then guilt weighs him down once more, reminds him that it's his fault in the first place, that he can't expect his seat to stay empty once he's left it, only logical that someone else would take his place.
The guilt is further compounded by the fact that even after knowing how utterly wrong he and his decisions were, he would still not hesitate to make them all over again – abandon, betray, kill, maim – everything.
Because, really, that's who he is.
He is also a coward – and that's why he's walking in the opposite direction, trying hard to put distance between himself and impending apologies, awkward silences, and possible rejections.
"Don't think that I don't know what you're doing, Sasuke."
"—egg-eye, white-eyed freak—"
"You're getting more and more uncreative by the minute."
"Besides, for all I know, you could be talking about Neji."
"I will not beat you up badly enough to send you to the hospital, no matter how much you sulk."
"Besides, Sasuke, don't you think Sakura-chan will see right through it? I mean, for this to be realistic, I'll have to be pretty beat up too and—well, I'm not really in the mood to get bruised and all."
Sasuke sighs then, knowing that he must concede, and plops down on the grass beside his friend.
Then, in a tired tone, he speaks.
"I beat you up until you were an inch away from death back there", he says this with no inflection of regret, merely a statement of fact, "and from what I heard, I hardly caused any bruising on her skin when I—" he pauses, the word catching in his throat, itching, and burning, and hurting, "—strangled her."
Sasuke does not even try to mask the bitterness in his voice.
"So why are you here speaking with me as if nothing happened while she goes about her days avoiding me like the plague?"
There are times when he is still amazed that he can talk to Naruto so freely like this, so freely and comfortably, but mostly he's just thankful. He does not know where he would be if he was left alone with his own thoughts – no, that's not quite right. He does know… perhaps too well.
"Girls are stupid, Sasuke. What else do you expect?"
The blond shrugs nonchalantly, trying but ultimately failing to make light of the situation.
"That's not enough of an answer, Naruto, and you know it."
"Yes it—", Naruto begins. But he takes one look at his friend's face and slumps dejectedly, "No, You're right. It's not."
They both fall silent at that.
After a few seconds, however, Sasuke speaks up.
"Hasn't she ever told you anything about—", briefly, he considers saying it again, but it's hard enough just thinking about it, so he opts for a pathetic escape, "—well, you know?"
"Sakura-chan? No. No, she doesn't talk to me about stuff like that," then Naruto sighs, plowing on, "To be honest, I don't really understand her at all. One moment she's all gung-ho about getting you back, and the next she's— and this, I honestly have no idea about what she's trying to achieve right now. I mean, I thought I had her support but I don't know—"
Then Naruto shakes his head, as if to clear the cluttered thoughts and the tainted memories.
"Seriously, I can't understand her. You wouldn't believe the things she tried to pull right before that incident at the bridge, Sasuke," and for the first time, Sasuke detects a trace of disappointment, frustration, in his friend's voice, directed at the only female in their team, "—If Sai hadn't explained—"
But suddenly, Naruto perks up, and Sasuke mentally thanks whatever force is out there for Naruto's optimism.
"Hey! Why don't you ask Sai? They're always together, talking about this and that—"
Unfortunately, Naruto has a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
"No." He bites out, the word tasting bitter in his mouth.
"Come on, he might be able to help!"
Naruto is already standing up, offering a hand. Stubbornly, Sasuke refuses to take it, knowing that it might very well lead him to more pain.
"If I come with you, it'll be okay," Naruto says, trying his best to make his tone convincing, "You can act all apathetic and annoyed and Sai will think that this is all my idea. He's not very in tune with human emotions so there's no need to worry at all!"
Sasuke doesn't reply, but he's not yanking his arm out of Naruto's grip either. So Naruto knows that, if he just lets the idea stew, eventually Sasuke will agree.
Sure enough, Sasuke finds himself sitting awkwardly in the living room of his replacement's house, the unwilling subject of unabashed scrutiny.
"—so we were wondering if she told you anything, I mean, anything at all. A clue, maybe, or—"
For a moment, Sasuke is glad that the former Root nin's attention has left him and transferred to Naruto. But the next words almost make him want to risk the anger of the Rokudaime and rip Sai's throat out, if only to get rid of the sickening smile.
"I won't help you."
Won't—Not can't, which means that he can but won't. Really, the prospect of strangling the artist is becoming more and more attractive by the minute.
"What the hell— Sai, why not?!"
Sasuke can see clearly that Naruto is incensed. He probably wants Team Seven to go back to normal more than anyone else.
He, on the other hand, wants something else entirely. It's not much, really, but he needs to know.
She healed him, didn't she? She saved his life – doesn't that equate to forgiveness?
Does 'I love you with all my heart' still stand, or does strangulation cancel it out?
"Because it's not my place to tell you", Sai says, sounding so rational that it's hard to believe that he knows nothing about human relations, "She told her feelings to me in confidence, and I am not about to divulge that information."
Then he pulls out a book from his pocket and says, "I learned that from this book."
"But Sai, it's important!" Naruto pleads.
Sai, however, is reticent.
"It's for our Team Dynamics, surely you—"
"Surely you can ask her yourself."
But Sai is no longer speaking to Naruto.
Discomfited by Sai's meaningful stare, Sasuke gets up and turns to leave.
Not in tune with human emotions indeed. Damn that Naruto.
It's not as if he doesn't know what to do himself. In fact, Sasuke knew from the start that the best route was the most direct one.
But talking to Sakura is easier said than done.
What could he say to the girl who once loved him with all her heart? To the girl he left behind? To the girl he tried to kill? To the girl who saved his life?
'Thank you' would have done nicely, but he already said that – and where did it leave them, in the end?
Really, what could he say?
He could, of course, just come clean and tell her how much he misses it, needs it now more than ever – that warmth she gave him. But no, he is Sasuke Uchiha, and he has too much pride and too little courage for that.
"Kakashi, I want a solo mission."
Clad in the classic Hokage robes, Kakashi looks quite intimidating. What unnerves Sasuke, though, is how Kakashi's one visible eye can seem even more all-seeing, more omnipotent than his famed Sharingan. Sasuke, for one, has always feared it more.
As it is, they go through a ritualistic staring battle before Kakashi finally speaks.
"Alright, your mission is to—"
Sasuke braces himself, mentally preparing for the information about to be delivered. All at once, he has donned the cap of the professional ninja.
"—stop running from whatever it is you're running from."
It takes a while for the statement's meaning to sink in, a few minutes for his whole countenance to switch from Future ANBU captain to just plain old Uchiha Sasuke. But when it does, all he can do is pout and whine, quite childishly (though he would never admit it).
"I'm serious, Sasuke."
"Besides, you just got back. I'm not sending you or Naruto out on a mission any time soon. Enjoy the village, meet up with old friends, read Icha-Icha—up to you, really."
Sasuke would have tried to argue, but Kakashi already had his nose buried into his book.
He was disappointed, really. But more than that, he felt profoundly grateful that he could still watch his former mentor be silly and eccentric and familiar. Sasuke did not even want to think about how close he came to losing that.
"What more do you want?"
The words are whispered almost pleadingly into the empty space that is his home. And not for the first time, Sasuke wonders who he really addresses them to.
He is walking into the old training grounds when he gets assaulted.
At first it's just a flurry of fists and Sasuke dodges. But then recognition sinks in, and he lets them connect.
It is only when Sasuke is barely hanging on to consciousness that the assaulter stops.
"You were a bastard through and through, Sasuke."
Sasuke, however, does not – cannot – reply. His lip is swollen and bleeding, as are other, more vital parts of his body. Still, he is not angry, and he will not retaliate.
"How the hell could you do that to her?"
Another punch. A broken rib.
He deserves this.
And as he spirals into oblivion, he hears the sound of hurried footfalls, his would-be saviors. He can't see who they are, as his eyelids have just become too heavy to lift – really, he's barely hanging on – but he knows that one of them must be Naruto, finally arriving for their daily training which, due to the recent events, would probably have to be cancelled.
"Oi! Oi!! Get away from him!"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm done here, anyway."
"Well, if you're done, then can you let me take him to the hospital? He doesn't look too good— If this is your idea of revenge, though, then you'll be sorely disappointed."
"What do you mean?"
"You probably did him a favor by beating him up. He's been—"
"Suigetsu!! What the hell—Sasuke!! Why is he—h-hey, Suigetsu, did you pommel Sasuke for me?"
"Don't get your hopes up, tramp."
Liar, Sasuke wants to call him, this former comrade, this not-quite-friend who beat him up for betraying their former tracker in an unforgivable way. But Sasuke no longer knows where he stands with Suigetsu, or Karin, or even Juugo. So, wisely, he keeps his mouth shut.
Their banter continues, just like old times, and for the first time, Sasuke realizes just how much of an outsider he really was in that old group of his. He did not belong to Team Taka at all, and the thought makes him feel more uneasy than he likes to admit.
But then he hears someone – Naruto – whisper, "Hey, Sasuke, you alright?", and suddenly all the uneasiness disappears.
He, Sasuke Uchiha, belongs to Team Seven.
As it is, he manages to let out a throaty "Ah" in response. And as he gets hoisted up into his friend's back, Sasuke finally succumbs to the lure of unconsciousness, content that his next destination will be the one that he needs.
Pain – that's the first thing that registers when he wakes up.
Then, there's disappointment.
As the world shifts into focus, he starts to see the girl in front of him more clearly. She has hardly changed since he last saw her. The only thing that's really different is how she no longer looks at him with admiration, only with derision.
Sasuke looks away, unable to take the accusation in her eyes.
"Forehead Girl was just here three, five minutes ago. But there was an emergency and she was called away. She's important now, you know. Not weak, and definitely not useless."
"She asked me to look after you while she was gone."
The things Sakura must have told her—
"What did you do to her anyway, Sasuke? She won't tell me, but by the way she's been avoiding you, then it must've been horrible, right? I mean—"
--Wait, what? She didn't tell Ino?
"—you're a complete bastard. I don't even know why she still insists on—hey, are you even listening?!"
She didn't tell Ino. She didn't tell Ino. She didn't tell Ino. She didn't tell Ino.
"Argh, you're exasperating! I don't know what I saw in you all those years ago. You're clearly just—"
He glares at the girl, out of habit more than anything else.
"Oh, stop looking so damn angry, I'm leaving anyway. You can watch over yourself."
Ino stands up then and heads for the door. Before she leaves, though, she turns back to him and speaks, voice serious and heavy with truth.
"You don't deserve her, Sasuke—"
Sasuke isn't just silent, he's speechless. The bitter slap of reality hurts even more than his bruises and he doesn't really think he'll ever recover. He should have known, really, that a good thing couldn't last, that there was hope. No, Ino's right, he does not deserve her. She would probably be better off if she had never met him. He should stop his insistent attempts to talk to her because, really, he no longer has the right to.
"—but if you really, really can't keep away from her," Ino's tone shifts from serious to cajoling, "then the flowers at the Yamanaka Flower Shop should make a perfect peace offering!"
But Sasuke doesn't even hear that last bit, lost in his self-depreciating thoughts as he is.
That afternoon, he escapes from the hospital and goes back home.
Thirty minutes after he gives up on the "new world" and a mere five minutes after he begins packing his bag, he hears a knock on his door.
It is hesitant, almost shy – but it is insistent.
Reluctantly, Sasuke moves to open the door.
"Uhm, hi Sasuke-kun…"
Then, before he can register any thoughts—
"May I come in?"
It is all he can do to step aside and let her pass.
Briefly, it crosses his mind to hide his bag, but he knows by the sheer look of disappointment on the girl's face that it is too late. Still, the defeated expression is quickly replaced by a determined one, directed straight at him.
In his head, he tries to guess what's going to happen next – a punch, a slap, screaming, tears—
"I brought some cake."
He is rendered speechless by the decorated box being shoved into his hands. Slowly, and with a bit of uncertainty, he takes it.
"I don't like sweets."
Then his mouth betrays him, and he thinks that maybe this—this very moment—is a perfect time for the sky to fall, for the ground to open up and swallow him whole, for a plague of locusts to come and invade the village, for the devil to come and take him because really, really, he's the biggest bastard in the world.
God forbid if he makes her cry again. God forbid. So please, please – he wants to plead to her – keep those tears in check.
"It's—it's a peace offering."
Miraculously, she does, though he can see that it's taking her a bit of an effort.
"Can I sit down?"
He nods, maybe a bit too brusquely, not quite trusting himself to speak.
She is looking straight at him, eyes brave and determined but glistening and wet and in terrible, terrible pain.
He wants to say something, anything, but his mouth is dry and his throat is parched and he's just so horribly afraid – because this is hope, isn't it? But what if it isn't? What then?
"You— " she takes a shuddering breath, suffering, and he wants to reach out to her, but he doesn't and he hates himself for it, "You probably hate me—"
"—and you probably never want to see me again."
"But I just want you to know that I'm really really sorry. If—"
The tears are falling unchecked now, and he wants to brush them away and tell her to stopstopstop. But he doesn't; because more than anything else, he wants, needs, to hear this.
"—If I could take everything back, I would. But I only did it because I love you and I didn't want you to succumb to—but in the end, I couldn't even pull through with it, you know? I hesitated and was too weak to push—oh, who am I kidding, Sasuke-kun? I gave up on you, didn't I? Worse than trash—I am so unbelievably—"
She stops then, wipes her eyes and composes herself, and he finds himself amazed at her strength.
"—I'm really so sorry, Sasuke-kun."
Her voice is steady now – a bit weak, but steady.
She gestures to the bag that is lying guiltily at the sofa and he wonders if he should just burn the damn thing with a jutsu now before it can cause any more damage.
"You don't have to leave Konoha. If it's just me you're trying to avoid, please—I promise, you won't even notice I'm here. I'll keep out of your way at all times."
He starts to say something, but she cuts him off.
"Please don't feel obliged to say anything, Sasuke-kun. Please, just think it over. Konoha—you could start over here in Konoha. I don't want you to—because of me—just please, don't leave," she pauses, hesitates, keeps her emotions in check, "It would devastate Naruto."
Like a fool, he takes her advice and does not say anything.
There are a lot of things he wants to tell her, though.
It's not your fault.
It wasn't a betrayal.
You only did what was right.
I would have done the same.
I don't hate you.
Why are you even apologizing to me?
You should be the one hating me.
I don't deserve you at all.
Please don't go.
"So… I guess this is goodbye, Sasuke-kun."
With the promise of abandonment hanging in the air, Sasuke Uchiha finally finds his voice.
It's still not enough, and several important matters are left unsaid, but he is already pulling her into an embrace and, maybe, this time he'll just let his actions speak for him, because he has never really been eloquent and if he says anything now, he's sure that he will only ruin the moment, traitorous as his mouth is. So he stays silent – he does not even try to tell her to stop crying… because really, that would just make him a hypocrite.
Someday, perhaps, he'll tell her all those things that she deserves to know.
But for today, he'll just relish this.
It feels overwhelmingly nice, after all, to know that you don't really have to abandon hope.
Ten minutes after he becomes a hundred percent sure that he isn't just imagining things and three minutes after he ascertains that his voice won't crack, Sasuke speaks.
"Sakura… Thank you."
A week after their reconciliation, Sasuke discovers two things.
One, being loved feels a lot nicer than he remembers it.
Two, there truly is a higher power – one with a sick sense of humor.
"You know Sasuke-kun, I've been made to jump through hoops before I could come and talk to you that day."
Sasuke merely raises a brow.
Her story sounds awfully familiar.
"At first, I tried to ask Naruto if you really hated me, but he was too busy stuffing his face with ramen."
Mentally, Sasuke makes a note to beat the idiot up the next time he sees him.
"Then I asked Karin, but the moment I mentioned your name, she started reciting a litany of your faults and failures."
'So she really was speaking ill of me! That utter bitch!'
"Then one day at the library, while I was going out into the street, I saw you approaching—but the moment you saw me, you bolted! That's when I became sure that you were avoiding me. I was practically convinced that you hated me, Sasuke-kun! And you—you haven't explained that to me yet."
There was no way in hell that he'd tell her that he bolted because of Sai.
"Alright, fine, don't tell me. I'll squeeze the answer out of you some other day. Anyway—after that day at the library, I asked Kakashi for a mission. But our sadist teacher simply would not oblige!"
"Then Sai told me to just talk to you. And I realized that he was right. But I needed an excuse to approach you."
Sasuke found that he liked the artist a lot more after hearing that.
"When you got confined in the hospital, I thought that it was my chance – but there was this stupid emergency." She blew a tuft of errant hair from face and he couldn't help but notice how adorable she looked.
"I asked Ino-pig to watch you, but she was grossly incompetent. By the time I got back, you had already escaped. That's when I was sure that there was no way you would forgive me, if you were that keen on avoiding me, bruises and all. I mean, I was the only one that was having trouble approaching you, after all."
Her face takes on a melancholy air and he tightens his grip on her hand, as if it could somehow make up for all the pain he caused her. It's awkward and a bit uncomfortable – this physical contact – and he knows that he still has a long way to go, but he's learning. Bit by bit, he's learning.
"I couldn't let you go without at least apologizing first, though."
The guilt that assaults him when he hears that is unbearable – because it was at that point that he gave up. He would have left the village without even apologizing, if only to save himself from further pain – but the guilt is coupled with great relief at the fact that she is a much better person than him.
"It was a good thing that Ino said something about boosting their family business' revenue by selling special overpriced 'peace offering' bouquets to their unsuspecting customers."
Sasuke decided then that he would never ever buy from the Yamanaka Flower Shop. In fact, maybe he could open his own too, just to give them a run for their money. But the thought of him wearing an apron and arranging flowers is laughable at best, and he abandons the idea before it takes a more definite shape.
"I'm sure you already know what happened after that, Sasuke-kun."
A prayer was answered.