I like to think Sasuke loved them and still loves them, a lot more than he ever let on, or could show :')
[Based on the doujinshi 'The Lighted Path']
The Lighted Path
The curse mark burned at his skin, searing, retracting then spreading as he struggled to stay conscious. The forest was an eerie quiet and smelt stale as he made his way slowly, painfully slow, toward home.
His knees trembled and he nearly went down.
At one shoulder someone moaned; a tiny noise that sounded loud and strange in the silence. Sasuke stopped to listen and turned his eyes to the face resting on his shoulder. Sakura huffed a little in exhausted sleep, her eyebrows pulling together and then evening out. Sasuke examined her pale face and then leaned in and rested his forehead against the side of her head for a moment, trying to find some sort of relief from the aching of his body, the clawing of the curse mark, the straining of his arms. His shuddering, panting breath touched her pasty cheeks. A growl built in his chest.
He withdrew from the girl. The girl he carried curled halfway round his hip, tugging her along by her arm over his shoulder. He then turned to the boy. Naruto hanging off his other arm, bent over with his soft, badly bruised stomach bearing down on Sasuke's wrist. The raven wondered briefly through the fogging in his near-unconscious mind if he was hurting the other boy carrying him like this.
Sasuke's eyes struggled between black and sharingan red as he fought to stay awake. His legs wobbled but he took another step forward. Such an agonizing speed.
So heavy, but I'm alright... I can do this...
Sweat had drenched his body, his clothes cold and sticky, the warmth of his team mates excruciatingly hot on his skin. His eyes fell to Pakkun who was walking slowly in the lead. The dog looked back and Sasuke blinked a few times to clear his vision.
"Sasuke are you alright? The curse mark isn't receding." The Uchiha licked his lips.
"I'm fine," he said, his voice a dry whisper. The dog furrowed its brow.
"I'll go on and send Kakashi back. It seems like it's calmed down up ahead, the enemy's scent is disappearing."
"So they withdrew..." murmured Sasuke. Pakkun nodded before leaping off into the trees with a "you wait here!"
Sasuke stood for a moment, trembling under the weight before his leg buckled and he went down on one knee. Air hissed between his teeth as he tried to get back up but couldn't. Naruto's grimy hair was touching the forest floor, Sakura's legs dribbled across the dusty path behind him. Squeezing his eyes shut Sasuke bit into his lip and pushed up. He only got halfway before he came back down and the impact jolted his left side making his grip on his blonde friend loosen and Naruto start to fall away from him.
"No!" Panic rose in Sasuke's throat and suddenly it was incredibly important to hold onto his team mate. He reached out and seized the other boy around the waist, jerking him back against him, effectively knocking the breath from his own chest.
"No, no, no…" he murmured to himself, waiting for his heartbeat to slow.
Sasuke knelt panting and sweating with Sakura draped over one shoulder and Naruto's head on the other, their limp unconscious bodies warm and soft. He fought for air that ran raw and hot over his tongue. He couldn't get enough.
The ground beneath his feet swayed dangerously. Sasuke pulled the bodies closer to him, pressing his face into their cheeks. His mouth tasted bitter and dry as a sudden rise of emotion pushed behind his eyes and made his tongue thick. Their hair and skin felt safe.
He opened his eyes slightly, meeting Naruto's almost blonde eyelashes and strands of Sakura's milky pink hair.
His team mates all black and blue with their sleeping faces.
Naruto with blood crusted on his forehead and cheeks. Bruising around his eyes and lips. The choked noise he had made when he was caught in the stomach in an attack that brought blood from that big mouth of his.
Sakura, dirty and scraped. Her clean white skin now marked and cut. Her voice as she was thrown like a rag doll through the air and hit the ground unconscious.
The look on Naruto's face when Sasuke stood before him and said, "I'll protect you, I promise."
And yet he hadn't. Naruto, instead of being conscious by the end had been targeted once more and forced to defend himself while Sasuke broke his promise and couldn't protect anyone.
Sasuke breathed heavily, drawing the smell of sweat and blood through his nose as he held his team mates. A half blurred picture of a woman with black hair and dark eyes pushed its way into his mind. Sasuke shook it away and grit his teeth.
I want to be strong! I don't want to lose anyone else!
The image was replaced by a sunny shot of Naruto, smile all teeth.
And then Sakura and her gentle sea foam eyes.
Kakashi, lazy and quiet, a warm, fond expression.
Somewhere in the darkness, a light and warm comforting hands…
Sasuke's chest swelled painfully. His arms tightened around Naruto. His fingers gripped Sakura more securely. Somehow they had grown so close without Sasuke ever realizing. All of a sudden he needed to watch over them. He had to protect them because they in turn protected him, from so much more than just the human enemy. And yet he was useless. A pathetic piece of human wreckage, unable to offer them anything but his body. A shield to protect them. To protect what protected him.
They were... to him…
"Sasuke." The dull clack of sandals hitting the ground. The boy looked up, his eyes taking a moment to find the man.
"K-Kakashi..." Sasuke's voice was thick with emotion. The jounin dropped down onto his haunches and examined his face.
"Good, you're safe. How are Naruto and Sakura?"
"I...ah…Naruto's badly bruised and Sakura… might have some cracked ribs..." The younger man struggled to speak.
"I see," replied Kakashi softly, his hand coming up to touch Naruto's face, pushing at his swollen cheek gently so that the blonde's mouth lifted into a half smile. Kakashi chucked.
"They'll live," said Sasuke quietly for no reason in particular.
"I'm glad," murmured Kakashi before looking to Sasuke, peering into his face again with his one visible eye.
"Sasuke, when you can't move effectively you're supposed to conceal yourself." Kakashi didn't sound angry, simply curious. Sasuke lowered his chin as Kakashi took the two other genin from him. They stood together. Sasuke's legs shook with relief but somehow he missed the burn of Naruto and Sakura's skin on his own.
"Isn't that basic stuff, Sasuke?" asked Kakashi. Sasuke's eyelids felt heavy as he blinked.
"Is it...?" Again the image of his mother looking down on him with her loving gaze and then the blurry memory of Kakashi's smile in the Land of Waves as he looked over his shoulder and promised to keep them safe. His words to Sasuke at that time…
Sasuke smiled slightly.
"Yeah it is..." How funny. He hadn't even though of that basic until now.
He could feel Kakashi watching him, possibly confused with Sasuke's quiet manner and tiny smile. With the way he had found him clutching Sakura and Naruto on the verge of tears.
Maybe he wasn't confused at all.
"It must have been hard carrying them both all this way."
Sasuke lifted his face to his teacher who stood with Naruto and Sakura cradled in the crook of each of his arms. They looked small, like children. They were both breathing deeply, their faces leaning on the thick collar of Kakashi's vest. Sasuke breathed in slowly through his nose.
Their weight feels like its crushing me. I'm not used to it. I never wanted to have anyone near me, anyone to carry after that... When I can barely look after myself but...
"Never again…" Sasuke felt the curse mark receding." ... I don't want to see anyone precious to me die right before my eyes. Never again." Kakashi considered him for a minute, eye soft.
"Let's go home."
Your weight is heavy but for the ones I want to protect... For those who are precious to me... For you who keep me safe. I'll break the rules to bring you home and, for you, I can bear this weight.