Note: So I was going to keep this all in Sakura's POV, but we're going to be switching around a bit now, hope it's clear! And thanks so much for the reviews!
Also, I was having problems with my files and kept updating the chapters. It just occurred to me that may be sending you update alerts every time I do that. I don't know how that works-does it? Please let me know and I'm so sorry if it does! I don't want to be clogging your inboxes.
Sasuke scowled at his kitchen table. How dare she throw him out of her office? Of course, Sasuke let her do it because it would have been only too easy for him to subdue her—but that was hardly the point. No other kunoichi (except maybe that damn Hokage…and that freaky Anko woman) had the nerve to treat him with anything other than either respect (trans: fear) or total deference (infatuation).
And the worst of it was that Sasuke no longer knew how to predict his teammate's reactions. It used to be laughably easy. Sasuke used to have her clearly defined in his own mind.
- Annoyingly happy and superficial;
- Yells at the dobe, but never at Sasuke;
- Is easily hurt;
- Will recover quickly with a little (very little) acknowledgement from Sasuke;
- Good chakra control.
These things were really all Sasuke ever needed to know about the girl in the old days and he could always read her like a book.
But now. Now Sakura was still as sensitive as she ever was, but while he was away she had picked up the habit (from some big-breasted idiot) of responding to conflict, not with tears, but with explosive, excessive violence.
It was disconcerting to Sasuke. Not because he could not handle her monstrous strength, but because it always happened when he least expected.
For instance, what occured in Sakura's office less than an hour ago still baffled him. She had been staring and had gone very red in the face. In the past, when Sakura blushed like that it would be a precursor to one of her odd moods that left her stammering and agreeing to his every word, wide green eyes fogged over with some fantasy or other (that Sasuke had no desire to know about).
Confident, he had explained his plan.
And as he was explaining, Sakura's cheeks darkened even further. With rage. What followed was a vicious lecture that still had Sasuke's ears ringing.
"What...the..." Sakura shook, beside herself. She stared at him openly, disbelief and disgust twisting her pretty features.
There was a tense silence. "I-" began Sasuke.
"-HELL?" Sakura waved an arm wildly at him. "You want to- to use ME to TRICK all those homicidal girls into thinking you're off the market? Are you trying to get me killed?"
"SHUT UP! I can't believe—the nerve—I never—I—YOU!"
She slammed her hands on her desk, now utterly apoplectic in her fury.
"And," Sakura bellowed, "that you would even IMPLY that I'm anything—ANYTHING—like those fanatical—I was never that boy crazy! Or are you saying that I was? Am I one of your adoring fangirls now, huh, Sasuke-KUN? HM? IS THAT WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO SAY? Because if it is, you can say GOODBYE to the future of the Uchiha Clan! I am nothing like them, Sasuke! Nothing! Do you understand? I WILL CASTRATE YOU! God! There's no girl in the world dumb enough to fall for this crap. And I don't care if it's only for today. I don't care if it's for one damn minute! You need to find an HONEST way to deal with your problems, for once in your life, Sasuke! Are you understanding me, Sasuke?"
Sasuke shifted his weight uncomfortably.
"SHUT UP! You—you have absolutely NO RESPECT for women. You know what? I'm GLAD that this happened to you. You go around breaking hearts, you don't give any of the kunoichi you work with the time of day, and now—NOW you flounce in here, all high and mighty, and demand that I lie to my friends and the whole village, and pretend to be some—some stupid little girl, falling in love with the Almighty Uchiha Sasuke—again! I worked my ASS OFF getting the villagers to respect me, and I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT disgrace myself because you're too much of a coward to fix this on your own!" Sakura laughed bitterly. "But maybe this experience will finally teach you some humility. Man up, Sasuke."
She flung her door wide open.
"And get the HELL OUT OF MY OFFICE!"
When she was done, Sasuke had then allowed her to escort him from the room. Naruto was bodily thrown out after him. Sasuke had just gone home after that. Let Naruto sputter and panic. Let him make a fool out of himself.
Sasuke sat alone in his kitchen, glaring at the cabinets.
He checked the clock. 10:19. Still before noon. Still plenty of time to train…at the training grounds crawling with his bloodthirsty admirers.
Sasuke sat and glared.
At 10:21, Sasuke left his house, heading for the hospital. Sakura was his teammate. She was supposed to want to help him.
Six years ago she had told him that she would do anything for him. In the two years since he had been back, she had been kind and supportive. It was a far cry from the way she used to be, but he always assumed that the devotion was still there, underneath all that violence and crude language (both of which he experienced in healthy doses his first few weeks back).
Mid-building hop, he was suddenly reminded of another time she had promised to follow him to the ends of the earth and back. He frowned uncertainly. Was she still upset about that? It had been years but…
The unease in Sasuke's gut grew. He, of all people, understood a person's capacity to hold a grudge.
But really, it was not as if he had actually killed her. He only tried to. A lot. And had Sakura not also gone to meet him with basically the same intent? She would have failed miserably (and did) of course, but it was the thought that counted. She had told him that herself dozens of times in nagging lectures he had only half-listened to.
But now Sasuke wondered. Could Sakura be feeling bitter? Sasuke dismissed the possibility. Since his return, she had always treated him the same as everyone else.
He stopped short, a building away from his goal.
She treated him the same as everyone else.
Sasuke was so disturbed by this new shift in his world view, that he almost missed Sakura clumsily edging across the threshold of the hospital entrance. Her arms were full of more of that disgustingly romantic nonsense, and she stumbled. A hand shot out to steady her.
Sakura smiled gratefully at the handsome face of her savior.
Kaoru's face split into an easy smile that made Sakura a little weak in the knees. His warm amber eyes shone with amusement as they settled on the bundle in her arms. "I suppose a congratulations is in order. You've had a very successful White Day, I take it?"
Sakura giggled, embarrassed. "Yeah, I guess so. But you make it sound like I've made some sort of conquest."
Kaoru raised a suggestive eyebrow. "You know they say love is war, and to the winner goes the spoils. And it looks like in this case, the spoils," he tilted his head and eyed her presents, "were taken directly from the Kazuhiro Confectionary. Maybe old man Kazu is the real winner today."
Sakura rolled her eyes, an amused grin pulling at her lips.
"So," Kaoru continued casually, falling into step with her as they departed the hospital. "Get anything good?"
"Oh yeah, tons. I have a lot of thank you letters to write. I feel kind of bad, though, I've never even met some of these guys."
"Don't worry about it, Sakura, they understand. They just want to show their appreciation."
Sakura shrugged. "Yeah, I know, but, I'm still not used to the attention. And some of the things these guys sent! I don't even spend that much money on myself! I just hope they're not on a chuunin salary, or worse. Like, for instance, this one guy sent me a bracelet that I know can't have been cheap. And it's gorgeous. It has green and white gemstones and a rose design, and-"
"I'm glad you liked it," Kaoru smirked, eyebrow raised meaningfully.
Sakura gaped. "You sent…?"
He nodded, smiling. Sakura flushed, speechless. Kaoru was a skilled medic, though he rarely worked at the hospital, preferring the field. Sure, there were times when her gaze would, as he was walking away, sometimes trail south, but she never thought of making a move. Seemed she was the only one.
Eyes dancing with amusement at her flustered staring, he added lightly, "I have also, as of yesterday, signed up for membership to the Miss Konoha General Hospital Official Fanclub."
Sakura's mouth flapped embarrassingly a few times before she could form words. "You—you—what?"
"Oh yes. I have a badge and everything. They're sending me my complimentary refrigerator magnet next week."
Sakura's mind blanked. "There's a refrigerator magnet?"
"Yes. It says 'Sakura-chan for Hokage,' I believe."
"And a badge?"
"Of course. Not much of an official organization without a badge."
"Mmhm. I heard that the president, Lee-san, petitioned Godaime-sama for official status. It got approval right away."
Why she—oh, she's going to get a piece of my mind when I see her... Sakura tried to scowl but could not quite manage it when Kaoru started laughing. It was a nice laugh, honest and playful. So unlike a certain teammate. She shook her head.
"Kaoru-kun, thank you for the bracelet, but it's really too much, you didn't have to-"
He held up a hand. "No, none of that. It's a gift."
"I won't hear it." He smiled. "If you want, think of it as something from one friend to another. And," he said gently, "if you want to see it as something more, I wouldn't have any objections."
Sakura's cheeks warmed. Smiling shyly, she thanked him.
As they walked out of sight of the hospital, a lone figure watched from the shadows.
Sasuke was annoyed.
And he was annoyed that he was annoyed. Why was it that he was always so annoyed whenever Sakura was around?
He gripped the wall he was lurking behind so hard that he felt some of it crumble off in his fingers.
He snorted. How stupid. Sakura was making a fool of herself, giggling and blushing and tripping and—and smiling like a moron at that…no-name medic-nin weakling.
Sasuke recognized him. They went on ANBU missions together occasionally. What was his name? K-something. Kiba, maybe. Something niggled at Sasuke's mind, telling him there was some obvious reason why this was wrong, but he was too busy glaring at Kiba to care.
Activating his Sharingan, he tried to read their lips, and narrowed his eyes at what he saw. This—this outsider was trying to move in on Sakura. Did he not know just who her teammates were? She was part of a unit made up of three of the most powerful shinobi in the village (and Sai). If Sakura was going to...be...with anyone, it might as well be...someone as strong as they were.
Not that Sasuke cared about her love life. He snorted derisively. But he would sooner take up unicorn breeding than sit through team meetings and dinners with that fool glued to her side.
And Sakura was distracted enough with her hospital duties, anyway. A change in their dynamic now would throw everything off balance. Maybe it would have been alright if it was Naruto, or even his weak replacement. But this Kiba person was not even part of the original Rookie 9.
Sasuke waited eagerly for Sakura to snap, as she had done so many times with him, but to his dismay, not only did she not rip Kiba's flirting lips off his stupid face, but she was smiling.
He snarled in disgust. Was she batting her eyelashes now? Really? Revolting.
Their laughter faded as they did into the distance. Sasuke had a sudden, intense urge to run about the village with Kiba's head on a pike.
Somewhere in the arid desert of Wind Country, Kiba sneezed.
Meanwhile, back in Konoha, Takaki Shuu, age fifty-three, a Capricorn, blood type A positive, was navigating his bicycle through the busy market square, whistling a merry tune. It was a busy day for a humble mail man like him. He sighed. Ah, to be young and in love again.
Adjusting his bulging satchel, he turned a corner, en route to the Haruno residence. He smiled. Some lucky young lady was about to get a very special delivery. Oh how he loved making people happy.
And he peddled on.
Sasuke lost track of the time he spent brooding in that darkened alleyway, glaring menacingly at pedestrians that happened to spot him.
It was none of his business.
He did not care.
So she wanted to be with Kiba. So she wanted to go on silly, time-wasting dates with Kiba. So she wanted to make Kiba tasteless bento lunches, and give Kiba frivolous hand-made presents, and hold hands with Kiba, and do fun things with Kiba, and worry about Kiba, and be in love with Kiba.
That was just fine by Sasuke.
Sasuke growled at a child walking his dog. As the child scampered away, dog whining fearfully, Sasuke felt a presence behind him. He glowered.
"If you're waiting for Sakura, she's gone home. I for one am glad she's working half-days now. She pushes herself too hard sometimes. Don't you think so, Sasuke?"
"Hey, don't look so glum. I understand. Rejection hurts, but-"
"I wasn't rejected—stop that!" He angrily swatted away the hand that tried to rustle his hair affectionately.
"Really?" Kakashi's one eyebrow was raised in mock surprise. "Sakura-chan was clearly taken with that nice young man. I haven't seen her like that since she was a cute little genin in love."
Sasuke narrowed his eyes dangerously. "What are you implying?"
His sensei shrugged, favorite book already in hand. He was silent.
A bird flew by overhead.
"It's none of my business, she can do what she wants."
Kakashi turned a page.
"Do you want to go snoop around in her office?"
Sasuke questioned for the hundredth time why he was doing this. With every box of chocolates and every simpering love letter, he was just getting more annoyed.
"Kakashi. I've seen enough. I'm leaving."
"Patience, Sasuke-chan." Kakashi tucked away the box of truffles he had just finished off (how did he do that without letting him see his face?), and said in his lecture voice, "Now, even though you are her precious teammate, you have no idea what Sakura wants, what she needs, what makes her happy... or what makes her mad," he added with measured emphasis. "Do you want her to stop threatening to kill you or not?" Sasuke grunted.
He did not like how Kakashi's eye crinkled in a way that just screamed mischief. "Good. Now, let's take a closer look at what's going on here. Try to see past the obvious, Sasuke."
The obvious? Obviously, Sakura's admirers were idiots. "It's just a bunch of useless crap, Kakashi."
"Maybe to you, but did Sakura throw any of it out?"
He looked around. There was so much pink and red he needed to close his eyes for a moment to steady himself.
"No," Kakashi answered himself. "And here's why. Look at what's in her desk drawer that I've picked open." Sasuke looked. Cards, and more letters. "You see? It's the sentiment, the fact that they cared enough to think of her that she appreciates. Now think about what she did with your last two birthday presents."
Sasuke had to actually think hard to remember what they were. Oh right. For her eighteenth birthday it was Naruto's stupid ramen coupon, and for her seventeenth, a sweatband that used to belong to Orochimaru. She had thrown out the first immediately, and the second she wore proudly for a week before setting it on fire when he told her where it was from.
"Unlike you, who is rude and unpleasant, these guys," Kakashi gestured to the presents, "are much more deserving of our sweet Sakura-chan's affections. Look, there are a lot of flowers here, and jewelry. Sure, most of it's cheap and she's probably never going to use it because it would just weigh her down in a fight, but they make her feel loved."
Sasuke rolled his eyes at the word, and Kakashi saw. "Now ask yourself, Sasuke. Does Sakura ever feel cared for around you?"
No. Sasuke was surprised by how immediate the answer was in his mind.
He wanted to protest. He protected her all the time. He knew she could protect herself just fine, but he did it anyway. Sasuke knew that she always misunderstood his intentions, and he let her. Even if she held a grudge and refused to heal his injuries, he let her think that he still thought of her as a burden. He knew she was strong. Maybe not stronger than him, but stronger than most. Strong enough that he always wanted her on his team if he could help it, enough that he hated when he was forced to deal with another medic (like Kiba), who never healed as quickly, and who was not as handy in a fight.
But there was no reason to let Sakura know about that. She was stronger now, after all. Why would she need constant reassurance?
Sakura did have a temper, however. And she was constantly expressing her disappointment in him—and Naruto and Sai, of course. But while the other two would trip over themselves to apologize (cowards), Sasuke just let the tension sit and fester between them until Sakura would run out of steam, heave a long-suffering sigh, and be back to normal again. Sasuke never did a thing. And why should he? Naruto and Sakura were the ones who risked everything to bring him back, neither of them would just give up on him now because of—he scoffed—bad manners.
He did not want to think about what he would do if Sakura got fed up and left him one day.
The sound of crinkling tissue paper interrupted his thoughts. Kakashi was digging through some gift bags. "Aha," he crowed and pulled out a... Sasuke choked.
"What are you doing?" he growled.
Kakashi chuckled and daintily waved the snowy white negligee in Sasuke's face. "Pay close attention, Sasuke-chan. Now this is what you give a woman when you want to send a message."
"What. Kind. Of. Message?" he bit out.
He chuckled, "Don't tell me you don't know, Sasuke." He waggled his eyebrow suggestively and jiggled the lacey garment. It was nearly see-through in areas and Sasuke doubted they actually covered much. "Ah, I guess it is somewhat forward for two strangers. Oh, maybe it's from her boyfriend."
Sasuke was gone before he could finish the word.
Sakura had parted ways with Kaoru and smiled the rest of the way home. He really was very nice, and he had such a nice smile. And great taste in jewelry. He's gotta be loaded, too. Uh, not that that's a factor. Still! I'd be out of my mind to not at least go on one date with him. Right? Right.
Lost in thought, she bumped into someone when she reached the top of the stairs to her apartment. "Oh, excuse me, I..." She trailed off. Behind the young woman in front of her were at least two dozen more girls and women, all of them eyeballing her with open dislike. "Oh, uh, hi? Can I...help you?"
"Haruno Sakura," the one in front barked.
"Yes!" Sakura squeaked before she caught herself and coughed, "Ah, y-yes, hello. That's me."
"My name is Mitsuzu." The woman gave her a once over and sniffed. Sakura suddenly felt very untidy. She was still dirty from work and had no make-up on. Mitsuzu, on the other hand, was immaculately put together, her glossy blond hair swirled up in an elegant yet practical bun, and her tasteful dress clinging to curves that Sakura was very jealous of. Her strong feminine features were drawn into a scowl so fierce that it had Sakura surreptitiously inching back towards the stairwell.
Sakura stammered, "Er, hello, nice to-"
"If you're not too busy," Mitsuzu sneered and flicked her eyes pointedly to the flowers and gift bags clutched to Sakura's chest, "We need to talk. About Sasuke-kun."
And then it clicked. Crap. Crap.
Sakura smiled uneasily.