dedication: this is a request from CrimsonAsh15. if you're interested, check out my forum!
prompt: sasuke and sakura are friends since childhood, or something similar to home. (fantasy is actually one of my guilty pleasures that i haven't gotten around to writing yet, so i'm going to experiment in this one. is it even considered fantasy?)
notes: this is irrelevant, but for further readings, go to my lj. i'm starting to post more drabbles there now—and it'd be great to get to know new people, too!
"Sasuke-kun, my pantyhose are quite uncomfortable." She fidgeted in her chair. "Would you please take them off for me?"
If she didn't know him so well, she wouldn't know to check the tips of his ears for blushing. She couldn't help but giggle when they did turn red—as red as the tomatoes he loved so much. "There are female maids for a reason, Sakura. Ask one of them."
"But it's so much fun teasing you," she said, grinning cheekily, pulling up her dress to show him her dreaded pantyhose.
He quickly looked away. "Princess," he hissed, "the door is wide open, and anyone is prone to walking past and seeing you in that disgraceful state. I'll be beheaded before night falls."
"Nonsense." She waved it off. "I'll just save you, like I always do."
"I'll have you know that you would've never saved me if I never let you."
skeptics and true believers
can you take this silence like a pill, so i can breathe again?
She had counted. She had counted like a faithful little girl. He'd said: two and a half moons.
Two and a half moons later, he was home.
When Sakura woke up that morning, she made sure to finish reading her current book before getting out of bed and following her morning routines. Her bath was long and relaxing, and when she arrived at the dining room, the aroma of breakfast invaded her senses.
Today was going to be a good day.
The sun was high in the sky before she dared to look for him. It was nearing midday, and she was sure he'd be back by now.
He was just exiting the library when she found him.
"Sasuke-kun!" He noticed her pouncing onto him in a hug just quick enough to keep his balance from falling over. "You're home!"
It was a moment before he answered. "Princess." This, of course, was expected of him, so she smacked him.
"Sakura!" she emphasized as closed the library door behind him, a book in his hand. "My name is Sakura!"
He nodded, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. (Which, of course, it was.) "Sakura."
She had a theory. Every time he went on a long trip, he would return, calling her Princess, like most others in the city did. It was because he was actually really insecure about their friendship—that while he was gone, she had forgotten about him and found someone else.
What he didn't know was that it was impossible to replace childhood friends.
Sasuke was her family's messenger. When there was a message that couldn't be trusted with a messenger bird, he would be the one responsible to do the job. He became an orphan at seven, and her family took him in. Their first meeting went like this:
"Your hair is kind of funny."
"…Yeah, well, your forehead is kind of big. Really big."
"…I'm telling my daddy!"
"Wait! No! Don't go! I—I'm sorry, okay? Don't tell His Highness!"
"Mm…only on one condition."
"That you'll be my friend!"
"That's a stupid condition. I'm not going to be your friend."
"Okay, okay! I'll be your friend! Geez!"
She chattered to him about the past two and a half moons, about what she was learning from her mentor, about the maids' most recent gossip, about the new dress that her father had bought her. And then: "Can I see Naruto?"
For a moment, he just looked at her like she was some beast. "I don't see why you're so fond of that thing."
"He's so cute!"
Naruto was Sasuke's pet weasel. Except, weasels in this country were about ten times bigger than the average weasel, and they were very good transportation. It was because of Naruto that Sasuke even got anywhere in decent time.
"Naruto!" She nuzzled the creature, which became incredibly excited at the sight of her in his pen. "You're energetic, I see!"
And all the while, she could feel Sasuke standing a little ways behind her, waiting—always waiting, always the stability of her life, always there.
"What are those?"
"Tomatoes. I came across them on my last trip."
"You returned with nothing but those in your bag. Are they really good?"
"…Sasuke-kun, this is disgusting."
After her classes, she was called to her father's office. She skipped happily down the corridors, only stopping to admire a new painting that had been put up; splashes of color on the canvas to create the image of a pond with a small bridge arching over it. She liked it, she decided.
"You called me, Father?" Her mind was still from the topic of today's lesson—politics—so she didn't notice the other man in the room.
The king nodded. "This man here," he gestured to her left, "is Prince Neji Hyuuga. He is asking for your hand in marriage."
Her smile froze on her face, as he gaze locked onto the other than in the room. He was pristinely dressed, clothes embedded with intricate gold sequins. His long hair was tied back, not a single strand out of place. To her relief (although she wasn't sure what she was worried about in the first place), he wasn't adorning a small crown, as she had often imagined princes to wear.
But that didn't make him less frightening.
The thought of marriage had barely crossed Sakura's mind. After all, why would she? She had everything she'd ever want: wealth, education, and a best friend.
But she was sixteen. The perfect age to get married at.
The prince bowed deeply, his loose ponytail falling over his shoulder. "You are more beautiful than they say, Princess."
Never before had she hated how easily she blushed. "Thank you. I believe I've never heard of you before. You're from…?"
"Far east, Princess. I come from a developing country. I will promise you, though, that in a matter of years, it will become thriving and bountiful."
She nodded, a tight smile settling onto her lips, and turned to her father. "Why didn't you tell me about this beforehand?" The small ember of anger was already beginning to burn deep in her belly, and she tried to suppress it. An angry princess was not a pretty princess.
The king eyed his daughter, small traces of sympathy flashing across his features. "We are quite busy this time of year, as you know, Sakura. Why don't you take a walk with Prince Neji? You two could get to know each other." There was a hint of hope in his voice—he wanted her to marry the prince. Many princesses got married at the age of fourteen, but this was the first time that someone had requested her hand in marriage. Was she not good enough?
The prince held out his arm for her to take, and she did take it, albeit hesitantly. She led him out of the castle and into the gardens.
Being a princess, Sakura never had to ask for much. As a child, she was a little deprived of her parents, as her mother had passed away while giving birth to her, and her father was always working. She was always in the company of maids, though, so things weren't as lonely.
Her mentor, Tsunade, was the best in the land. Experienced in all fields, she had taught Sakura everything there was to know—straight from the books, and about life.
And Sasuke—most of all, she had Sasuke. Sasuke was what made her wake up in the morning, made her not want to go to bed each night. He was the one who stealthily slipped into her dreams when she didn't notice and weaved into her body and tugged at her heartstrings. He made her happy to the point that she completely forgot that she was a princess and shouldn't be throwing her head back and laughing wholeheartedly—and even if she did remember, she wouldn't care.
Where was Sasuke now? He'd know how to calm her down.
"Dragon hunting is a sport that my family takes interest in," the prince was saying—although she couldn't quite remember when she stopped listening to him. "Do you have any hobbies, Princess?"
"Um," she said intelligently. Right now, all she could think of was petting Naruto and feeding him the carrots he loved. "I quite enjoy…reading."
"Ah." He nodded. "That's a good hobby to take up. Anything else?"
She had a lot of hobbies. Lying in the grass on sunny days. Taking naps in the library. Running and running and running until her legs gave out from under her and collapsing on the ground, laughing breathlessly with Sasuke by her side.
But none of these were proper for a princess, so she merely shook her head. "No. Nothing."
"So…you read all day?" the prince asked uncertainly. She felt a little bad for him—she was sure that he was a perfectly good man and would make a fine husband—he just wasn't the one for him.
"No. I learn, too. Tsunade-shishou teaches me many things."
"Politics," she answered immediately. "What to do in the situation that my husband should pass away. Proper etiquette at the dinner table, at balls, at meetings. Also"—she paused, not sure if she should continue. "Also…the values of life."
"That's interesting," he murmured. "I was never taught the latter subject."
"Oh, it wasn't a subject." She shook her bangs out of her face, smiling fondly at the thought of her teacher. "My teacher often went off on different tangents. It led to interesting stories."
"I see." His voice was quiet, but still crystal clear. It must've come with years of speech training.
When they rounded the corner of the castle, they came across a person. Although he was hunched over with his back facing them, Sakura recognized him immediately—and how could she not, when she'd known him for almost ten years?
Because being a messenger wasn't always a regular job, Sasuke was also given a variety of other things to do. Tending to the garden was one of them.
When he turned around, she could see the life in his eyes that was only there when they were alone—but the moment he saw the prince at her side, that life died. She swallowed.
Standing up and brushing off his trousers, he bowed deeply. "Your Highnesses." His tone was clipped, formal. She didn't like it one bit.
"This is Sasuke-kun, our most trusted servant." The word servant tasted foul on her tongue. Sasuke wasn't a servant. Sasuke was much more than that. "Sasuke-kun, this is Prince…Prince Neji. He comes from the far east." She had nearly forgotten his name, silly her. But could it really be considered silly? It wasn't Neji's arm she wanted to be on. Being on Neji's arm made her stiff and tired. When she was on Sasuke's arm, ironically, she felt freer.
"Servant?" the prince inquired. "Does he do the gardening?"
"Oh, he does all sorts of things," she said enthusiastically. "He's very skilled." There was one time when her corset caught on a tree branch when she was running, and he had fixed it for her with thin fingers and delicate hands. She was awed. "But he's mainly our messenger to other countries."
"He's come to ask for my hand in marriage," she told Sasuke, laughing. She almost missed the way his eyes narrowed. "That's a bit silly, don't you think?"
"No," he answered without hesitation. "Any man should be honored to have you as his wife, Princess."
She frowned. "My name is Sakura."
A long moment of tense silence followed, and the prince cleared his throat. "Shall we continue on our way?"
She could feel Sasuke watching them leave, his stare hot on her back—but it disappeared the moment they turned the corner.
She wished it didn't.
"Hey, Sasuke-kun, will you read me a story?"
"You're perfectly capable of reading it yourself."
"Yeah, well, it'll be like a bedtime story. Father used to do that for me all the time."
"Back when you were a child and couldn't read."
"That's stupid. No."
"I order you as the princess!"
At the very least, she waited until after dinner to cry.
Sakura had a secret. It was one that the maids all knew, but never reached her father's ears. Sometimes, at least once every quarter of a moon, Sasuke would sneak into her room and they would talk until the early hours of the morning. It was the only time they could completely forget who they were and just be free, without fearing that someone would walk in on her snorting or them sitting closer than a princess and servant should.
"Getting married would mean…leaving this place, right?" She stared at him, eyes wide. Never once did his expression change; he would always be her Sasuke.
"It would mean living with your husband." He nodded.
"That's far," she whispered, staring at her hands that were clutching the ruffles of her dress.
"That's far," he agreed.
A long silence stretched out between them. She didn't want to go. Leaving meant walking away from everything she had ever known for a man she hardly knew, to a kingdom she'd never heard of—all alone, all by herself. She didn't want that. She wanted stability, familiarity, happiness.
"I'll take you with me." Her voice was barely audible, and she couldn't help but notice how handsome he looked under the moonlight, with his angular features.
His dark eyes landed on her, and she couldn't help but swallow, her throat dry. "If that's what you want."
"Yes," she said, more determined now. "That's what I'll do. I'll take you with me."
"No one ever said you had to marry him." And what hurt was the fact that he was right. She didn't have to. She could say no to Prince Neji, and life would continue the way it always did. Nothing had to change.
But her father had high hopes of her. He had expectations. Both of them knew that this would probably be her only chance to get married—her reputation among the lands was that of a fiery princess, and that had scared away most princes. She couldn't just live here her entire life and disappoint her father. She had to stand up on her own two feet and do something useful.
"But I have to," she whispered. "I have to."
He didn't ask why, because he understood. He didn't offer words of comfort, because none would help.
And so they sat in silence, side by side—and somehow, at that moment, it was enough. Sakura had always liked listening to Sasuke breathe—his breaths were deep and even, always steady, always constant.
She felt him stiffen when she leaned on him, head resting on his shoulder.
"I wish it was just us," she sighed wistfully. "No statuses. No anything. Just me and you and the world." He didn't answer, and as the minutes passed, his muscles relaxed under her. A small smile met her lips, but that was all it was: small.
She fell asleep on his shoulder that night, and when she woke up, she was in bed, eyes pink and puffy, her sheets tucked lovingly around her.
"You need to grasp his fur tighter if you don't want to fall off."
"But he loves me—obviously, he'll be gentle. C'mon, Naruto. Start walking. C'mon—" Thump. "…Ow."
"I told you so. Do you need a hand?"
Prince Neji was at the dining table, having breakfast when she came down from her room. The manner in which he ate made her feel tight and constricted—Sasuke never cut his sausages with such care or bring his goblet to his lips so delicately.
"Good morning, Princess," he said to her, a thin smile on even thinner lips. "Did you have a good sleep?"
Her fingers immediately flew to her eyes, remembering their redness when she looked in the mirror earlier. "Oh, yes." She took a seat across from him, flattening out the ruffles of her dress. "And you? Are the servants treating you well?"
"Of course. Their service is impeccable. Trained by the best, I presume?"
"There is nothing but the best." She laughs softly, but without any mirth, as her breakfast is placed in front of her.
"I have noticed, though…all of the servants are female. And yet, yesterday, that boy…"
Sasuke wasn't a boy, Sakura wanted to tell him. Sasuke was a man. He could handle the hardships of life and he could stand strong through any storm. "He's an exception," she explained to the prince. "He was orphaned at the age of seven, and my father saw some potential in him, so we took him in. He does the most advanced work around the castle. My father thinks very highly of him."
"I see." He nodded once, returning to his food. A silence fell over them, and she ate with her back straight, cutlery hardly clinking against the china. It was excruciating.
Could she live like this for the rest of her life?
When her goblet was drained and her plate was scraped clean, she carefully dabbed her lips with a handkerchief. The prince cleared his throat.
"What are your plans for today?" And so she briefed him on her daily schedule. He nodded, and she noted a few stray strands of his chestnut hair falling into his pale eyes. He was very handsome, she realized, in an exotic way.
She didn't mention the marriage. Neither did he.
Maybe he would leave.
Sasuke should've been up hours ago, already supervising the other maid's duties. Normally, he would sit with her while she had breakfast, and after that, he would escort her to her lessons. But today, he wasn't here. She wasn't surprised—but the disappointment still hit just as hard.
So the prince escorted her instead. He was nice company, and overall seemed like a very proper and kind man—but his presence was just stifling. His status was too high.
"I hope I will see you later, Princess." He bowed a little when they reached the door of her study. "May I call you Sakura?"
The name was foreign in his voice, but she nodded tightly. "Of course, Your Highness."
"Sasuke-kun, which dress do you think is better?"
"The pink one."
"Really? But this green one matches my eyes…"
"If you wear the pink one, it'll bring out your eyes, because it matches your hair."
"…You just think pink looks better on me, don't you?"
But the days passed, and he was still there. And the longer it dragged on, the heavier her responsibility got.
"I can't concentrate," she announced, closing the thick volume in her hands with a thump. "All I can think about right now is this stupid marriage."
"Language," Sasuke chastised, and she couldn't help but grin a little cheekily. "Let's play a game. The maids have gotten into it as of late." He pulled a single string from his pocket, tied into a loop. "They call it Cat's Cradle."
"How interesting." She sat closer to him on the couch, watching as he looped the string intricately over his long fingers. "How do you play?"
"I'll teach you."
Warm hands bumped into hers as he went through the steps with her. She made several mistakes on her first try, but as they went through it again and again, she began to get a hang of it. And for that little while, as short as it might've been, she was perfectly content and happy.
And when the library door opened abruptly to reveal Prince Neji, that tranquility suddenly shattered.
The prince looked a little taken aback. "I was not aware that you had company. I apologize. Am I interrupting something?" And the way he said that suddenly made her and Sasuke's little child's play feel so wrong, so dirty—she pulled her hands away from the string and folded them on her lap, shaking her head.
"No, not at all. Is there something you need?"
"I was told by your mentor that you would be in here, studying. I thought that you would like some company, but I see that's not needed." He turned to leave the room as abruptly as he entered it, and Sakura found herself parting her lips in haste, eyes widening in desperation.
"I'll marry you."
Slowly, the prince turned around, and stared at her.
It took several seconds for the severity of her words to hit her, and when it did, she blinked, sinking backwards into the couch. It seemed that in that one moment, she had somehow took the entire weight of the world onto her shoulders.
She had just said that she would marry Prince Neji.
Sasuke was very tense beside her, and she almost wanted to reach out, touch her fingers to the back of his hand, and reassure him that things would be okay.
But how could she, when she didn't know if they would?
The prince was the first to recover. "I'm glad," he told her, a smile ghosting across his lips. "I did not come, confident that I would win your hand. In fact, I was ready to return home today. But because you agreed…"
She wasn't sure if she should feel dread washing over her, or relief. Maybe both.
"In that case, then, we will need to speak with your father. The ceremony will be held as soon as possible." He beckoned her to stand up and go with him. She gave Sasuke one last look before the door closed behind them, but she wasn't quite sure what she was trying to convey. It'll be okay, I'm sorry, are you alright, please don't look so pained, please.
Or maybe even, Are we still best friends, even though I most likely made the stupidest decision of my life?
The prince was talking about his land and the dragon-hunting season and their ceremony and how grand it would be, but all she could think of was what her life would be like from now on. How much worse it would be. If she could handle it.
"Sakura." She hated it when he said her name. It sounded unfamiliar, uncomfortable, forced. "Are you alright?"
"I"—she stopped walking, not quite sure of what she was going to say. She and Neji stared at each other for a long moment, and the breath she was holding escaped her lips in one big whoosh. "You don't…happen to have any giant weasels in your country, do you?"
There was a pregnant silence, where he regarded her with his opalescent eyes. "No," he said. "There are not."
"I'm hungry. Will you make me something to eat?"
"I find it ironic how a man is more adept in the kitchen than a woman."
"Well, that's because I'm a princess, obviously. Make me something sweet? Please?"
"Of course, Your Highness."
The ceremony took place a moon later, in Neji's kingdom. She departed her own home just half a moon before that, so early that even the sun hadn't peeked over the horizon yet. She didn't even get to see Sasuke before the horse took off.
(Because where the Neji came from, they rode horses—all sleek elegance and power—not weasels.)
It was grand. Her father was there, Tsunade was there, Sasuke was there—and also, some of the maids that she was closest to were there. After the ceremony, Sakura spent most of her time being conversing with Neji's family—he had a big family. She felt like a black sheep, the odd one out—all of them were so beautiful and graceful, opalescent eyes and midnight hair—and what was she? A little flower that could be easily trampled over.
"Ah, Your Highness—" She caught the prince just as he had slipped away from the crowd. He looked as handsome as always, impeccable in his royal clothes, expression set in stone—but at the same time, he held a certain glow. Could it be that he was happy?
"I have a…request to make." She stumbled over her words a little. "You informed me that you have made arrangements for Tsunade-shishou to move here so I could continue with my education." Nod. "Is it possible that the same arrangements were made for Sasuke-kun?"
For a fraction of a second, his eyes narrowed. "Why is that?"
"Well"—she fiddled with her fingers—"Sasuke-kun is my childhood friend, and I don't wish to part with him. I promise you that he will be a great contribution to your maids' work—"
"I don't mean to be rude," his hand came to a rest on her shoulder, pressing the itchy fabric of her dress to her skin, "but I would prefer if Sasuke did not come."
For a moment, her heart stopped. "Why's that?"
A wistful sigh left his lips. "Consider it me being selfish. When you are with him, I feel…ah, how do I say it—outclassed, I suppose. You two share a bond that I could only wish to have with you. We're only just beginning to know each other, and I do not want him to interfere. Of course, I want you to be happy"—he swallowed then, and she wondered if he was feeling insecure—"but I would like you to try being happy with me." She blinked.
It had never occurred to her that she could be happy without Sasuke.
"I…" Her throat clogged up, and she swallowed. The way Neji was looking at her made her heart beat fast, and maybe, maybe she could try? "O-Okay."
The smallest smile found its way to his lips, and the corners tilted upwards. "Thank you," he said, so softly, so tenderly that it almost made up for Sasuke's absence. She bowed her head a little to let his lips touch her forehead in a small kiss, her cheeks flushing.
"You're welcome." Her voice was tiny, and she wasn't even sure if he heard it.
He held his arm out to her, glowing even brighter than before. "Shall we return to the party?"
Her hand nestled in the crook of his elbow, and they returned to the crowd, side by side. And for the first time ever, she felt mature, like a woman, like she was on the right path—right beside her husband.
"I'll…I'll miss you."
"Hn. Remember to retire to bed before the moon is too high in the sky."
"And always eat properly."
"I've always eaten properly!"
"And always wear your corsets and pantyhose. Be careful with them, because I won't be there to mend them for you."
"Right. I'll try. Thank you, Sasuke-kun."
At the ball that night, even she had to admit that she looked beautiful. Her long hair had been done flawlessly by Hinata, Neji's cousin—she felt that they would be good friends. It would be nice to have a friend around here.
It was a little difficult to breathe in her corset and her pantyhose were tight, but she would have to get used to feeling constricted from now on. But she couldn't stop this little flicker of hope—that maybe it didn't have to be this way. That maybe Neji would accept her and all of her informalities, rudeness, lack of elegance. Maybe she wouldn't have to be proper when it was just them.
Sasuke was leaning against the wall with a goblet in his hand when she found him. It was strange to see him out of his regular tunic, but everything else remained the same—his sour expression, the slight slouch in his back, the curve of his neck. She relished this.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" she asked as she approached him. His eyes landed on her immediately, and she flushed. Was she pretty enough for him? Or even better—was she beautiful?
"I'm a little out of place here, but other than that, it's nice," he said dully. Her smile faltered a little.
"You don't…you don't have to be here, if you don't want to. You can retire to your room until tomorrow morning." Because tomorrow morning would be when they left. When they all left.
"No." He shook his head, bangs curtaining his dark eyes for a moment. "I want to be here."
She couldn't help but laugh a little. "You're like a black sheep."
But then again, so was she.
The ballroom was filled with nothing but the buzz of conversation when the orchestra finished a piece. Within seconds, it was playing again; a waltz, with the violins holding the light melody.
"Would you like to dance?" she asked him, holding out her hand. She could almost laugh at the irony of their reversed roles.
His eyes sparkled. "You know I don't dance."
"It doesn't mean you can't, though." She persisted by shaking her hand a little, the light of the chandelier making her silk gloves shine. "Please? This'll be the last chance in a while." She couldn't bear to say that it would be their last chance, ever. It couldn't be the last. It couldn't.
They engaged in a small staring contest, before he finally closed his eyes, sighing. "If that's your wish, Princess." Placing his goblet down on a nearby table, he followed her to the dance floor.
She beamed when one of his large hands came to a rest at her waist, the other holding her right hand. It was warm. It was very warm.
"Do you remember when I first taught you how to waltz?" she asked, recalling the memory from three years ago. Back then, he had still been getting used to his quickly growing body, not quite accustomed to his longer legs and fumbling feet. She had sore toes for days after that, but never once did she regret it.
He grunted. "Unfortunately." One, two, three, one, two, three. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Neji dancing with Hinata. When their eyes met, he pursed his lips—his version of a smile, she supposed. So she smiled back.
"He won't let you stay with me." Her smile became sad. "He…he doesn't want you here."
"I expected as much." Sasuke's tone was clipped.
"You aren't upset?"
"So what if I was?" His grip on her waist tightened a little, and her heartbeat raced. "It wouldn't change things, so I might as well not be upset at all."
And at that very moment, she wanted nothing more than for them to be alone, to be out of this corset, to pull him close and hear his heart and just breathe, just breathe him in and let him invade her senses and let him be everything to her.
"You make it sound so final," she said, suddenly feeling the urge to cry.
"That's because it is." His eyes were unreadable, as they always were when she wanted to read him most. "You're married. It would take no less than quarter of a moon to reach you, even with Naruto's assistance. Tonight is our goodbye."
"It's never goodbye." She smiled sadly, because it was becoming difficult to even believe herself anymore. "It's always 'see you later'."
"Can you please smile, Sasuke-kun? It's been years of friendship, and I've never seen you smile once."
"I don't see the point in doing it."
"We're…we're not going to see each other for a really long time. Can't you please?"
"Exactly. Why should I smile if we're parting?"
Exactly two moons later, wandering the chilly corridors, she stopped mid-step, blinking.
Oh. Oh. How could she not have noticed before?
She was in love with him.
"I know you're not here right now, but I'm going to pretend you are and imagine your responses."
You do realize how stupid you'd look, speaking to no one, right?
"Well, it's not like I don't always look stupid, as you have kindly pointed out before."
"…Never mind. I didn't think talking to the imaginary you would be as good as talking to the real you, but I stupidly hoped so anyway."
Five moons into her new life, and she was beginning to forget.
Beginning to forget the exact contours of his face, the way he'd smirk when she embarrassed herself, the way his eyes gleamed when he thought of something amusing. And this came as such a fear, so real and clawing at her belly—she'd wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because she'd been dreaming of a faceless friend.
For all her life, he'd been the constant. He had always been there, supporting her through everything, making her smile every day.
And now, he was fading away.
"Sakura." Neji lifted his head in surprise when she knocked on the door and cautiously slipped into his office. "Is something the matter?"
Sheepishly, she pulled one of the green ribbons out of her hair, quickly tying it into a loop. "Will you play a game with me?"
Pause. "A game?"
"It's called Cat's Cradle. Here, I'll teach you how to play!"
"I…" He sighed, rubbing his temples. "I don't have time for games, Sakura. Go ask one of the maids." Her smile fell, and she knew instantly that he regretted saying those words. But she nodded, throat tight.
"Right. Okay. I…" She swallowed the lump in her throat. "I will see you at dinner."
For a moment, it looked like he would say something more. But he nodded back once, features blank. "Dinner." Because every day, without fail, he would have dinner with her.
The food in Neji's kingdom was very different from the food back in her kingdom. It was new and exotic, and several dishes weren't to her taste, but she had gotten used to it. She could swallow without thinking anymore of the spices that overwhelmed her nostrils and made tears spring to her eyes. She was growing. Little by little, she was growing.
At the head of the table would sit Hyuuga Hiashi, who would soon pass the crown onto Neji. She would sit to his left, and Neji to his right, across from her. On her other side would be Hinata, eating with dainty fingers and quiet clinks of cutlery to china. The initial awkward silences had grown into comfortable ones, but that didn't change the fact that they were still silences.
They shared a room. They shared a bed. But it never held the same warmth as Sasuke. But—but at this, she wasn't disappointed.
Neji was not a bad man. He was no Sasuke, but he was not a bad man. She accepted him and his oddities, his small ways of showing affection—because in that sense, Sasuke was very similar. Neji's breathing pattern was a little different when she lay beside him at night, but it almost became a comfort when she woke up from another nightmare.
"That…servant boy." That night, he pulled the tie out of his hair and combed it out. She would never forget how handsome he was, no matter what he was wearing, how his hair was. "Sasuke was his name, wasn't it?"
"Yes," she said slowly, cautiously—not sure where he was going with his train of thought.
"You always refer to him with his given name, and yet, you call me Your Highness, despite being married to me. Interesting, isn't it?"
It was a moment before she answered. "No," she murmured. "It's not interesting."
"No. It's just…very blatantly rude." The blood crept to her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Your Highness." She paused, trying to form the next word on her lips. "…Neji-kun."
He moved so he sat closer to her on the edge of her bed. "I appreciate your effort, Sakura." His hand found her knee, and she couldn't help but notice how cold it was, seeping through her nightgown. "But you don't have to push yourself."
She shook her head hastily. "No. It's fine."
He might've smiled, but she couldn't catch it, because he leaned over her to snatch one of her ribbons off of her bedside table. "You said you wanted to play a game earlier today, right? Cat's Cradle, was it?" She blinked, the surprise clearly written on her face. "Would you teach me how to play?"
And seeing him try so hard like this, trying to make her happy—it was okay. It would never be perfect, but it'd be okay.
"I will keep my dignity and act like pretending you are here with me is not a stupid thing to do."
Oh, that's okay, Sasuke-kun—I do it too, you know!
"I am beginning to question my mental health."
Well, I hope you're not crazy, because if you were, then I'd be long gone, don't you think?
"Yes. Too far gone. You're…too far gone."
Before she knew it, spring arrived, and it was annual dragon-hunting season.
"It's traditional for the women to watch the first hunt," Hinata explained as they were brought deep into the mountains, the air chilly and brittle.
"Isn't that dangerous, though?" Sakura looked around, wondering if there was a dragon hiding behind that corner, or in those shadows. How did dragons look, anyway? She'd never seen one before. But by the sound of their name, there were something to be feared.
"Oh, we'll be seated far away," the fairer girl said pleasantly. "They're big enough to see from afar. Neji-nii-san is said to be the best hunter in the past three generations." At this, Sakura's chest swelled a little in pride. She was married to the best dragon hunter around. "Do you see what he's doing right now? He's luring them out with bait."
She felt a little nauseous when she saw that the bait was a fully grown cow. A fully grown live cow.
Pulling her cloak tighter around her shoulders and sitting back further into her makeshift chair, Sakura watched as her husband stepped away from the bait. The animal looked confused for a moment, inspecting its surrounds—and then, it let out long a long moo.
And a few seconds later, it was completely devoured.
Sakura had to grip her cloak tighter so it wouldn't be blown away with the sudden gust of wind. The dragon was monstrous—scales the color of dirt and mud, talons sharp and teeth bared, a little red from its snack. Its yellow eyes scoured the area, searching for more food—but when it found none, it gave a mighty roar, shaking her down to her very bones.
Needless to say, it was frightening.
Another gust of wind slapped her in the face when the beast flapped its wings, landing with a thump.
And there was Neji, standing before it—clad in armor and only armed with spears and arrows. He looked so small compared to it, so vulnerable—how could he slay it?
It was more of a game, she realized. He would taunt the dragon, and it would lunge—but with its large and blundering body, he could easily maneuver himself between its legs and under its belly. The deep purple of its blood splashed against the rock of the earth from his blades—and she could imagine how it smelled: metallic, nauseous, gut-wrenching.
The flapping and roars of the dragon was so loud that she couldn't hear someone calling out to her. Turning around when someone tapped her shoulder, she saw Tenten, the head maid.
"There's someone here to see you, Your Highness," she yelled over the noise. "I told him to wait until you returned, but he insisted that he had to see you now."
Sakura blinked. Who was possibly that eager to see her? She knew no one outside of the castle, save for those back in her own kingdom. Everyone here knew that she'd be viewing the hunt today, so he must've been from her own land. But who…?
The answer hit her like a ton of bricks.
When Tenten moved away, Sakura stood so she could see behind her better. And sure enough, behind the head maid, was Sasuke.
And as she stared at him, absolutely speechless, she wondered how she could ever forget that face of his. It was so handsome, so heartbreakingly beautiful—and the way he looked right now, thin lips parted a little and shallow breaths, eyes widened by a fraction and not glaring for once and did he grow again?
He was the first to speak. "Princess." And that voice—that smooth bass that she'd grown so accustomed to hearing over the years made her want to cry from happiness.
"Sakura," she laughed breathlessly. "My name's Sakura."
A shrill scream cut their reunion short.
Sakura whipped her head around, and she could've elicited a scream far louder and shriller than Hinata, but found that she was too shocked to do so.
Neji, on the ground. Neji, limbs spread at awkward angles and chestnut hair disheveled and pinned underneath the talons of the dragon.
For a moment, her heart stopped beating.
Other men were already rushing towards him, armed with weapons. And all Sakura could do was stand there, hands clasped over her mouth in fear. How could this happen?
"I thought you said he was the best," she whispered to Hinata, throat dry.
"He is," she squeaked, looking equally horrified. She was even paler than usual, her skin becoming a sickly white. "When he's not d-distracted."
"What could possibly distract him from a dragon?"
Hinata looked at her, eyes wide and hands shaking imperceptibly as they were held against her chest. "You, Sakura," she whispered. "He was staring at you."
"How long has it been?"
"I don't know. I stopped counting after three moons."
"Oh. I did a little better—I got up to six."
"…Yeah. But anyway, how have you been—"
"Do you love him?"
"The prince. Do you love him?"
"Of course not, Sasuke-kun. You should know that better than anyone."
"Hn. Just making sure."
Sakura had always known that Neji's hands were cold, but now, when she held them, they felt like ice.
He had been rushed back to the castle the moment the dragon was slain. It took hours before a proper doctor could come, though, and until then, he had broken into a terrible fever. Sakura was sick with worry.
(The little voice in the back of her head asked her if she should even be worried, but she pushed it aside.)
The doctor said he would be fine, but ever since she seated herself at his bedside, he hadn't opened his eyes. Her neck was cramping and her back was sore.
There was a soft knock at the door, before it opened. She could tell who it was just by the footsteps. "Sasuke-kun."
"Hinata-sama told me you didn't come to dinner." He brought a heavy tray of china and food, balancing it carefully on the small bedside table. "Here. You have to eat something." Hesitantly, she pulled her hand away from Neji's, holding it to her bosom, in hopes to warm it up.
"I'm not hungry," she mumbled, tearing her eyes away from her husband to look at Sasuke. His striking features would never stop amazing her.
"You should still eat." Taking a bowl of stew and kneeling down on the floor so he was at eye level with her, he took a spoonful and blew at it to cool it down, holding it out to her. "Here. C'mon."
Bottom lip trembling, she took the spoon in her mouth. It was the stew that she hated most—the herbs didn't settle with her stomach and she just hated its texture as it slid down her throat. She fisted the ruffles of her dress, trying her best to keep her tears in.
"His Highness sent me to tell you that your birthday is fast approaching, and would like you to return for the celebration. Your husband and his family are invited too, of course."
"Oh. Alright. I'll make arrangements." She nodded, as if trying to convince herself that things were okay, things were not shattering before her eyes.
He fed her another spoonful of stew. She found it difficult to swallow.
"Why are you still so kind to me?" She was so unflattering, falling apart like she often did in front of him. "I threw you away. I'm beginning to forget about you and I'm living with it. Neji-kun and I are getting along well, and maybe one day, I'll love him like I should. So why—why are you still so kind?"
Sasuke took his time answering, like he always did. Placing the bowl back onto its tray, he shuffled closer to her on his knees, warm hands and calloused fingertips brushing her temples, tucking long locks of hair behind her ears. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket—the one he always used to wipe away her tears. The fabric felt comforting against her skin—it reminded her of home and what-ifs and used-to-bes.
"That is because," he said as-a-matter-of-factly, dabbing delicately at her tears, "no matter what surname you take, you will always be my princess. And I will always be there when you need me." She noticed how he was careful of avoiding eye contact.
"Do you…do you love me?" she asked, voice hoarse.
There was a pause, before he admitted, almost sounding wistful, "Sometimes, when my control slips."
She didn't say anything back, but she was sure that he knew her well enough to know that she loved him too. Because life wasn't all about closure or chances. They'd lost their chance when she decided that responsibility and honor was more important than happiness.
"I…" She didn't know what to say. "Thank you, Sasuke-kun."
His hand came up to cup her cheek, a thumb stroking her lower lashes. She would never forget his undying kindness. He said nothing, but it seemed like he didn't need to. Very slowly, and very cautiously, he raised himself higher on his knees. She closed her eyes, and she could feel his lips pressing softly against one eyelid, and then the other. "There," he said, voice lacking all of its usual sharp edges. "You stopped crying."
Beside them, Neji stirred. Her eyes flashed open in panic, but Sasuke took his time pulling away from her and standing up. She thought she saw a part of him break.
"Treat him well," he said softly. "He loves you very much." And he left the room, door shutting softly behind him.
When she looked back at the tray with the quickly cooling stew, she found that there were two spoons.
"Sakura…?" Her husband's voice was weak, but that didn't change the fact that he spoke. Quickly straightening her dress, she helped him sit up against his pillows.
"Neji-kun," she greeted, voice full of misplaced love. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been better," he said, lips curving into a small, wry smile. She couldn't help but laugh a little brokenly.
"Would you like some water?"
"That would be nice."
There was a goblet on the tray beside the stew, as if waiting for her.
She helped him drink the water, and wiped away the little bit that trickled out of the corner of his mouth with the back of her hand. "Both of your arms are broken," she said gently, glancing at his bandaged arms. "And one of your legs. You will be bedridden for a long time."
His eyes were nothing short of affectionate. "Will you be feeding me, then?"
A choked laugh escaped her throat. "Only if you want me to."
"What crazy man wouldn't want his beautiful wife to feed him?"
She would never stop admiring how Neji always continued to shine, no matter what was thrown in his way. "Would you like some stew?"
"I am a little hungry," he admitted.
And so she took the second spoon and stirred the stew that Sasuke had brought for her (or was it for her and Neji?), blowing on it the way he had to cool it off. For minutes, he ate, chewing slowly and swallowing with the utmost etiquette, even in bed and completely handicapped.
"Will he be alright?" His question caught her off guard, and for a long moment, she just stared at him, not sure of what to say.
Then finally, she smiled. "He'll be just fine. And so will I."
a/n: back when i wrote home, i was thanking the 100+ people that had me on favorites/alerts. but now, i have to thank the 300+ that find me worthy.
thank you. really. thank you.
(btw, i'm sorry i made the ending so melancholic. it couldn't have been happy without being unrealistic. ;__; i did consider killing neji, though. and i felt like a jerk for doing so.)