A/N: ...Yup, it's a new, never-before-posted chapter. But please don't get your hopes up-it was more than half done already, so I thought I might as well finish & post it. Any further updates are still highly unlikely. :(
Uchiha Sasuke frowned to himself as he made his way down one of Konoha's many winding side streets, frustration evident in the little lines drawn between his eyebrows and in the tightness of his mouth.
In the weeks since he'd been released from house arrest, the last Uchiha had begun taking long walks around the Village each night. After midnight, Konoha was almost an entirely different place, full of empty, moon-washed streets and silence rather than noisy, milling crowds and the rise and fall of constant conversation. It was peaceful, and the fact that there were significantly fewer people out and about to ogle him was a definite advantage. But as with most everything, there was a practical purpose behind Sasuke's nightly walks: he'd found they helped him think through complicated situations, and they also relieved some of the restless tension he often felt after spending the majority of the day inside; after years of roaming wherever he wanted, being confined to the Village made him a little stir-crazy.
Tonight his thoughts had been scattered and random at first-not that that was so uncommon these days-though after a while he'd found himself thinking about what Kakashi had said about Sakura, and about Sakura herself, both well-worn topics that he'd mulled over many a time on previous walks, and the current source of his frustration.
Sakura had helped him…no, damn it all, she had saved him, she had done that ridiculously dangerous jutsu and brought him back from the very brink of the treacherous precipice he'd been teetering on—fighting and kicking and swearing all the way, yes, but she'd done it.
She'd waited for him.
She had loved him once, and even if she hadn't been the only one, she'd been willing to take a chance and come right out and say it when no one else had.
And somehow, judging by her overly cautious manner around him of late and the way she tended to avoid his eyes, as well as the information contained in that scroll, he didn't think he'd be wrong in guessing that she loved him still.
She still loved him? Really, he thought with a snort, that was pathetic. That anyone could be so stuck on someone that they would wait ten years-ten years! He shook his head. Absolutely ridiculous.
…And yet…at the same time, it was oddly reassuring to find something that hadn't changed over time, to realize that some people could be trusted and depended on, to recognize that regardless of what he'd done and what he'd become, he was still an important, worthwhile, and desirable person to someone.
Did he find her equally desirable? He couldn't deny that he appreciated, even enjoyed her presence-she was undeniably intelligent, and strong in more ways than he was probably aware of-and the reflexive responses of the more instinctive, purely masculine side of himself assured him that he found her physical appearance very pleasing indeed. She was warm, so warm that it reached through his outward coldness and touched the very heart of him, leaving him feeling slightly thawed inside, even if his behavior and expression remained unchanged (though lately he had caught one corner of his mouth pulling upwards whenever he thought of her, which happened far more often than he would have admitted to anyone). Moreover, she made him feel something he'd not truly felt for years:
She made him feel safe.
Still tightly wrapped in his own thoughts, Sasuke rounded a corner, finding himself stepping out onto the street running alongside one of Konoha's streams, this one leading down to the bridge Team 7 had once taken to meeting on, and slowed, almost faltering to a stop for a single step before recovering his stride. Because there, as if the intensity of his thoughts had summoned her, there she was, standing on the bridge with her back to him, shoulders hunched a little as she stared down at the passing water.
Fighting to push away another brief stab of hesitance, he decided to continue on his chosen path and approach her, just see what he felt, or if he felt anything at all.
Sakura stared down at the reflective face of the water below her, listening to its quiet gurgle as it slipped downstream, watching the soothing, rippling pattern of the moonlight on its surface, taking slow, deep breaths of the moisture-laden air. It had been a particularly rough day at the hospital, but then again, any day that she lost a patient was rough for her. Even after living through a war and seeing all the horrifying things she'd seen on the battlefield and in the hospitals afterward, it was still hard for her to admit that sometimes there were hopeless cases, that sometimes there would be people that she couldn't save. She'd gotten better at dealing with those losses over the years, but she doubted it would ever be easy to accept what she still saw as failures; honestly, she hoped it wouldn't. She'd always been the type to care too much, and perhaps it was a weakness of sorts, but she still preferred it to the alternative.
She sensed him before she ever heard him coming, and in an instant her mind flashed from that day's particular set of trials to what Kakashi had said at the restaurant the other night. She would have been lying to herself if she'd insisted that the idea of Sasuke missing her hadn't shaken her a little, but she'd succeeded in more or less shrugging it off-after all, when she was away on a long mission, she started missing trivial little things like her own bed, the clean, distinct taste of Konoha's water, and sometimes even the smell of her apartment, so it didn't necessarily mean anything.
…Except it did, because unlike her, Sasuke had always done his best to avoid growing attached to people or things.
"Sakura. What are you doing out so late?"
"I couldn't sleep, so I decided to go for a walk," she said with a slight smile, then leaned more heavily against the rail, staring out over the water once more. "It's such a beautiful night…"
Unlike that night so many years ago, the moon was not hanging full and low and in the sky; it was only a half-moon tonight, but the sky was so clear that even a portion of the cratered satellite was enough to bathe the city with an unearthly silver glow. Looking at Sakura, Sasuke couldn't help but stare a bit at the way the moonlight fell on her, turning her skin milky-pale and perfect as porcelain.
She could feel his eyes on her, but she forced herself not to meet his gaze.
"You're staring, Sasuke," she murmured after several long moments, her voice soft and entirely without reproach.
She heard his quiet snort, felt the weight of his gaze move away from her, watched out of the corner of her eye as he turned his face forwards, looking down into the swirling eddies of the water below just as she was; then, and only then, did she dare to raise her own eyes to his face. His expression was as much a mask as always, the familiar introverted look firmly in place on his handsome face, giving her no clue as to why he was there or what he was thinking. With a slight shake of her head she turned her eyes downwards once more, waiting for him to speak, content in the knowledge that he might never do so.
It didn't really matter, she realized with faint surprise. Sasuke—Uchiha Sasuke, Konoha's resident ice block—had sought her out, and even if he didn't say another word to her, she would still be happy: after all, he had willingly and purposefully placed himself in her presence, which meant that he wanted to be near her, at least for a little while.
Of course, it was only after she'd decided to enjoy the silence that he decided to break it.
"I'm glad…that I ran into you here."
The words were quiet, calm, and unexpected, and she looked up sharply at them, feeling a jolt as her wide, green eyes connected with his-dark and moody and reflecting the shattered fragments of moonlight that glanced up from the rippling stream below. Awkward as it was, Sakura found that she couldn't stop staring at them.
So very beautiful…
It took her a moment to recover, but she managed a smile, slightly hesitant though it was. "I'm glad, too."
Unable to maintain eye contact any longer, she turned her head again, staring out across the water as that semi-comfortable companionable silence enfolded them once again, and wondering if perhaps Kakashi had been right after all.
That night marked an obvious yet unobtrusive change in the way Sasuke treated her. After their silent communion of sorts on the bridge, he had taken to spending more time around her for no apparent reason, something he'd never done before. It wasn't a daily thing, and there was no real discernible pattern, but she was almost starting to expect to find him waiting to walk her home late at night after a long shift at the hospital, and though he never outright thanked her or invited himself along, it had been weeks since he'd turned down any of the meals she brought him or refused to go somewhere with her. Sakura couldn't help but notice that he was also gentler somehow, that his face seemed less drawn, his eyes just slightly softer—but only when they were turned towards her.
If he hadn't brushed her off for years, she might've felt a little guilty about the way she'd been taking advantage of this sudden but subtle change to drag him places (or the way he always picked up the bill for their meals out). As it was, she had decided to enjoy it, that it was about time Sasuke paid her back a little for the way he'd treated her in the past.
Which also explained why she was currently forcing him to play this little game with her at the end of what had up until that point been a very quiet, enjoyable picnic.
"Okay, now it's your turn to ask one."
Sasuke sighed and rolled his eyes before looking back over at her. "I don't know."
Sakura give a little laugh and finished off the last few bites of her onigiri before giving him a verbal nudge. "Come on, Sasuke-kun. You've been gone ten years. We've got a lot of catching up to do."
"Even so…this game is stupid."
It really was, Sakura agreed, but it seemed that the only way to get him talking was to either annoy him until he snapped out whatever information she wanted to know, or else call it a game. And since going around annoying him all the time really wasn't the best way to build their relationship-friendship, she reminded herself sternly, friendship-they had ended up playing "games" rather often during the last few days.
"Well, maybe if you'd actually talk about yourself a little like most people do, we wouldn't have to play these stupid games."
"Fine," he sighed again, though it was really closer to a growl this time. "What do you want to know?"
That was a bit of a difficult question. Despite her use of the Chisei Chikizuna no Jutsu, there was still a lot about Sasuke that Sakura still didn't know, just little things mostly, but she was always vaguely worried that bringing up certain topics-his family, his favorite childhood pastimes, his clan's traditions, and the like-might upset him and drag him back down into the all-encompassing depression he'd only recently escaped. She knew that the day would come when she was just going to have to throw caution to the winds and ask, and deal with his response as best she could, whatever it was…but something told her that it was still too soon to force him to dwell on the memories of what he'd lost.
So what could she ask?
"Um," she said intelligently, her mind searching desperately for some vaguely interesting question to put to him. The memory of what Kakashi-sensei had told her the night she'd come back from her latest mission was foremost in her mind, and she smiled, though there was a definite trace of a smirk in the expression. "Did you miss me while I was gone?"
Sasuke tensed slightly, frowning down at his folded hands. This was Kakashi-sensei's doing, he just knew it. That exasperating, perverted ex-teacher of theirs had stuck his mask-covered nose into something that wasn't his business, and he was going to pay for doing so, Sasuke would see to that. The mildly irritated Uchiha made a mental note to ask Kakashi for a spar later that day, "just to warm up"; then they'd see how the infamous Copy-Nin fared against the man who'd proved a solid match for Uchiha Itachi…
Her inquisitive voice jerked him back out of his rather violent plans for revenge. It always has to be revenge with me, doesn't it? he thought with an inward grimace, and rubbed a hand over his eyes. Couldn't learn my lesson the first time…but I guess it's been my focus for so long, it's hard to know how to live like anything else matters…
Oh, yes. The question.
"…I was thinking about something else," he muttered, hoping to stall for more time. It was a difficult question, really, and he wasn't entirely certain that he knew the full answer to it. Of course he'd missed her; but he'd missed Naruto, too. Though…it had felt like a different kind of loneliness when he thought about her not being there to go out for dinner with him that week…but he'd just assumed that the difference was caused by the nature of their relationships. Naruto was almost like a-dare he think it?-brother to him (albeit an exasperating younger brother most of the time), and Sakura…
What was Sakura, really? He'd been trying to figure that out these past few weeks, but…
"Yeah," he said at last, not looking over at her as he answered. "It was too quiet without you and the dobe here."
He saw her mouth a silent oh out of the corner of his eye, and noticed her cheery expression fade somewhat. Nice answer, he thought sarcastically, mentally kicking himself.
"My turn now, I guess," he said quickly, hoping to somehow make up for that last answer.
"Okay," she said with a small smile, her face brightening again, interest overriding disappointment.
Something about that smile caught his eye, and Sasuke suddenly found himself staring at the graceful curve of her lips. They were such a delicate shade of pink, and were glistening faintly with whatever it was that girls put on their lips all the time to make them more noticeable, more tempting…
A slow, wicked smirk eased across his own lips, and he had to fight to hold back a chuckle. Time to make this game more interesting.
"Who was your first kiss?"
The pink-haired kunoichi beside him jerked a bit at the question, green eyes wide with disbelief darting up to meet darkly gleaming black.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to, I don't really care," the Uchiha said in a bored voice, though the almost predatory glint in his eyes belied that tone.
Sakura stared up at him, utterly bemused. She had only ever seen him act this way when he was needling Naruto…what did it mean that he was behaving this way towards her? "Oh, no, it's okay…i-it's just a little...embarrassing…"
As if her deep blush and halting speech weren't clues enough.
"Embarrassing?" He raised an eyebrow questioningly, and she gulped audibly.
"Ah, w-well, you see…it—it was…it was, um…Naruto."
There was a long moment of silence between them as he digested this information, and Sakura fought a sudden intense urge to fidget.
"Naruto?" he repeated after a moment, sounding as if he didn't quite believe it.
She nodded and refused to meet his eyes, her cheeks scarlet.
"It was back when we were fifteen," she admitted with obvious difficulty. "I kinda had a little crush on him after he came back from his training with Jiraiya—he'd grown up so much, and it was such a surprise to me, something kind of went…weird…in my brain for a while." She swallowed, still not daring to look up at her raven-haired companion. "And so…when we got another lead on where you might be, he left to get you back for me, like he'd promised before…and I…I kissed him before he went."
She glanced up at his quiet snort, relieved to find that he didn't appear to be at all angry; in fact, his smirk had nearly stretched into a real smile—small, but real.
"He probably nearly had a heart attack."
"Yeah, he did—you should've seen him!" Sakura giggled suddenly, the odd tension dissipating with her laughter. "He just stood there and stared at me for the longest time with this shocked expression, and then he turned so red, he was nearly purple."
Sasuke snorted again, though this time it was really more of a snicker. "Then what happened?"
Her mouth worked to contain her smile. "Then...he decided to try to kiss me back, and I punched him through a wall."
He gave a low, brief (and very satisfied) chuckle, and silence fell between them for a moment, the rustle of the wind through the trees and the occasional snatch of birdsong the only sounds to be heard.
"How about you?" she asked at length.
"Who was your first kiss?"
A sudden faint flush came to his cheeks, and he stared fixedly at something off to his side, refusing to let her get a good look at his face. "You know who it was," he muttered at last. He shuddered at the memory; to this day, it still revolted him and left him feeling disgraced and humiliated, and thus rather angry as well. (But then again, many things seemed to make him angry, so this wasn't really anything special.)
Sakura blinked. "Huh? I do?"
There was a moment of silence as she pondered this and Sasuke silently fumed at the memory.
"How would I?" she said at last, clearly confused.
"You were there, that's how you'd know," he snapped, unable to hold back his irritation. "You saw it." Disgust and loathing were thick in his voice, and she frowned at bit, lost in thought.
"Oh!" she said suddenly, eyes going wide. "Surely you don't mean…that day in the classroom?"
His silence was more than enough of an answer.
"You do! Are you serious, that was your first kiss?" She fought to hold back a giggle, only half-succeeding, and said, "Well, that was kiss from a guy, so we won't count that one. It was an accident anyway. Who was the first girl you kissed?"
Silence once more.
"That's not your business," he said at last, his voice low and harsh; she blinked in surprise at his tone and tried to catch his eye, but he refused to look at her. "It's not important anyway," he amended, his voice softer, but no less guarded. "Don't worry about it."
Curious as she was, this was apparently a touchy subject, so Sakura simply nodded. "You're right, sorry," she said with a lightness in her voice she didn't really feel. Even when it's just a game, and the questions are silly, inconsequential things like this, he still can't help shutting me out...
She stole another quick glance at Sasuke, and even though he still wouldn't look at her, she couldn't stop her smile from returning. It was all relative, after all-they'd had a nice time until just now, and it would be foolish to let this (it really was a stupid game) ruin it all.
Still, this was definitely enough 'fun' for one day.
"It's getting dark," she said, making a show of looking up at the evening sky; before she could add "we should probably go", Sasuke had already gathered up what little evidence remained of their picnic. He didn't say another word, but instead of simply shoving his empty hand in his pocket and starting off without her as he would have done in past years, he stood and waited patiently for her to come alongside him, and they walked back together.
"…Wanna know what I think?"
After Sasuke had walked her home (yet another recent development), Sakura had fidgeted around her apartment for ten minutes or so, then decided to pay Naruto a visit. If anyone would know what was going on with Sasuke right now, she reasoned, it would be Naruto, and since Hinata was nowhere to be seen when he opened the door, Sakura had no qualms about coming right out and telling him everything, even something as trivial as the game that afternoon and Sasuke's odd reaction to the first-kiss question, which had brought them to their current conversation.
"I bet he just didn't want to admit that he's never kissed a girl," Naruto said with a snicker. "I mean, I know he was never really been interested in any of 'em when we were younger, but at our age? That would be totally embarrassing!"
Sakura gave a snicker of her own and nodded. It made sense enough, she supposed-Sasuke had always hated to lose or be laughed at, after all-but his response had still seemed like overreacting. Not that he hadn't typically done plenty of that, too…
"I guess I should just forget it. At least he's talking to me more."
"Yeah! I'm glad he's being nicer to you now, or I'd have to beat him up again."
There was a distinct pause in the conversation, Naruto's eyes going a little wide in a subtle oops, while Sakura's narrowed in suspicion. He hadn't told her about his fight with Sasuke-at least not what it had REALLY been over-but the look on her face and the sudden, subtle pressure of her hand closing around his arm promised pain if he didn't spill.
"W-well, y'see…it's not like I only fought with him because he was being a selfish, reclusive jackass and wasn't treating you right-not that I wouldn't have kicked his ass just 'cause of that-but heh, haha, you know us, we fight all the time over everything, right, so it's not like that was the only reas-OWpleaseletgoofmywristSakura-chaaaaaan..."
Absently Sakura did so, too lost in her own thoughts to realize just how hard she'd been gripping her former teammate's arm. Sasuke really had been a lot nicer lately...and while she wanted to believe that he was simply opening up to her, the fact that Naruto had threatened him changed things. After all, he might very well have been acting a bit kinder because getting into fights would be troublesome.
…But no, Naruto and Sasuke had always fought, and they always would fight, and she didn't doubt for a minute that Sasuke secretly enjoyed it at least somewhat. Besides, Naruto had never been able to threaten Sasuke into doing anything before, and that wasn't ever likely to change.
But even so, the simple truth was that Sasuke hadn't changed for her, or because of her: it had been Naruto again…just like always. That wasn't anything new, of course-it was only to be expected. Still, for some reason, that realization hurt just a little more than usual this time.
Meanwhile, the fox-faced blonde was still trying to figure out a way to backpedal out of his unwitting admission without falling on his proverbial ass, and failing pretty much completely.
"…I mean, uh, if I'd said anything about it, er, about something-which I didn't!-then I would have said—"
"Naruto…" she groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose in a vain attempt to stave off the headache she could already feel lurking just behind her eyes.
Haruno Sakura spent a lot of time in her office at the hospital. Most of that time was spent filling out charts and reports, studying new medical jutsu or difficult cases, and other various job-related things; but sometimes, she found herself there during her time off, when she stopped by with the excuse of catching up on paperwork, but really just needed to think. And it made sense: it was fairly quiet, particularly at night-much quieter than her thin-walled apartment-her desk and chair were comfortable, the air conditioning worked, she had a decent view of the park across the street, and after all the hours, days, months of time she'd spent there, the place was comforting in its familiarity.
So it had really been no surprise to find herself heading to her office, even though it was a Saturday afternoon on her weekend off.
Once there, she wasn't sure if what she really wanted was to bury herself in backlogged paperwork and just forget about everything, or sit somewhere peaceful and actually figure things out, so of course she ended up accomplishing neither, at least at first. But slowly, inexorably, thoughts about her present situation stole in, her pen slowing as the doubts and considerations spinning in her head picked up speed.
She knew she still loved Sasuke, that much was certain; what she wasn't sure of was whether she should. Years ago she'd thrown herself at him constantly, and had only really succeeded in bothering him and getting herself rejected. Only when her feelings had become deeper, when she'd considered him a friend as well as a possible love interest, when it had become less of a crush and more actual love, had he responded to her with anything other than annoyance. Still, he hadn't accepted her feelings for him even then…and while that might very well have been because his goal came first, that wasn't necessarily the only reason. And the fact that he'd chosen revenge over her love for him and any feelings he might (might!) have had towards her…
Honestly, she might have been okay with it once upon a time, before she and Ino had fought and before she'd become Tsunade's apprentice; but here and now, Haruno Sakura was no longer content to be second best. And even though it had happened years ago, even though people could change (she herself had, obviously), the fact that Sasuke had once considered her such (if that—Naruto might very well have come before her back then, she might have been third) before made her wary of the fact that he could very well do it again.
In fact, she didn't know that she wasn't still only second-best in his mind.
If she were to assume that was the case, Naruto's fight with Sasuke suddenly seemed a whole lot more important. When she looked at it from second place, Sasuke's recent improvement in his treatment of her didn't actually mean anything-he'd just done it because Naruto had asked him to. Never mind what Kakashi-sensei had said; he'd been wrong about Sasuke more than once before, and while Sasuke might very well have missed her, that didn't necessarily mean anything either. After all, it was one thing to miss someone because they were your friend, or something like a surrogate mother; it was quite another to miss them because you were in love with them…
A quiet knock on the doorframe of her office interrupted her train of thought. Looking up from the untouched chart she'd been staring at for the past ten minutes (at least), she was more than slightly surprised to find Hyuuga Neji standing just outside the door.
…Great. As if thinking about ONE guy's feelings for her didn't already have her ready to beat her head against a wall.
She blinked, uncertainty delaying her response for a noticeable half-beat, then gave him a tentative smile. "Neji-san. Can I help you?"
He smirked slightly and pulled a carefully-folded letter out of one of his kimono's full sleeves. "I certainly hope so," he said as he handed it off to her.
Sakura did a quick double-take as she accepted the fancy-looking, traditionally-folded letter, her mind suddenly jumping back to Ino joking about the possibility of needing a formal letter of permission from Hyuuga Hiashi before pursuing a relationship with his nephew.
"…What's this?" she said, perhaps more cautiously than she otherwise would have, eyeing it warily.
"Nothing dangerous enough to merit that sort of suspicion. Though if you actually open the letter, I believe you'll be able to see that for yourself."
Shooting him a flat glare, she broke the paper seal holding it closed, blinking as it accordioned out across her desktop. She scanned it quickly, blinking again in surprise as her eyes caught on a particular phrase.
"…An invitation to a formal dinner?"
"Indeed. The treaty with Iwagakure is still a bit tenuous, and that sort of thing is a good show of confidence…though I'm sure I don't have to explain all the possible political benefits of such a thing to the Hokage's apprentice." His tone was a bit dry, but there was actual interest in his eyes as he continued, "It's next weekend, and I apologize for the short notice, but I had hoped you might considering attending with me."
"…I…I don't know," the pink-haired medic-nin said uncertainly. "With everything that's been going on lately, I've had to put in a lot of overtime, but I've still go so much to do, and next weekend, I—"
"—Of course." Faint as it was, there was no mistaking the dissatisfaction-and disappointment-in his tone, or in the way his lips thinned in a tight almost-smile as he cut her off. "There's always more paperwork. I should have known. Though for future reference, a simple no, thank you, is more than adequate, and quite to be preferred over an obvious and ill-considered excuse." There was a slight edge in his voice as he started to turn to go. "Forgive me for intruding."
"No—wait, Neji, I—"
What was she doing? Was she seriously going to turn him down? She looked at the invitation, letting her eyes run over the graceful strokes again even though she'd already memorized them all on the first read-through. Wasn't this exactly what she'd been wanting, something direct and to the point? This was something solid: it was pretty unmistakable now that Neji was interested in her as more than just a friend, and she enjoyed spending time with him. He was kind to her, and though he could be a little stiff and sarcastic, he wasn't at all cruel or uncaring. And he seemed to want to look out for her a little (which, after months of practically babysitting Sasuke, was a bit novel, and quite the welcome change).
What could it hurt? she thought, still staring down at the letter. It's just one date after all…and I owe him for that almost-date Kakashi-sensei crashed anyway. And also… She glanced up at the Hyuuga prodigy, and as her eyes met his, there it was: that faint flutter in her stomach that she'd been denying existed was unmistakable this time, and that was all it took to convince her.
Still, she was a little surprised at the feeling of mingled relief and uncertainty that came over her as she smiled up at him. "…I'd love to go."