Written for SasuSaku Month, theme: chance meetings & prompt: home. The rest of my submissions can be found on my livejournal (see the masterlist on my profile). Most of them are not on FFnet.
Edited 09/11/2011 - for clarity, and sharpening up the prose a bit. People wanted to know what happened to two certain supporting characters. Well you have empathapathique thank for convincing me to include it.
A Certain Slant of Light
- : -
"Are you emotionally stable enough...to buy a house?"
- My House My Castle
- : -
A gentle breeze flittered through the apartment's open window, whispering against gauzy curtains and making its intricate shadow dance on threadbare carpet.
A week ago, the occupants would have woken at even this slight disturbance, trained, as they were, for long missions requiring alertness - or, failing that, fine-tuned senses that triggered rapid return to full wakefulness. Six days ago, however, they had set up some nasty surprises to compensate for the lure that an open window, in a town of shinobi, provided to those less lawful.
For the past few nights, this had not been enough to appease Sasuke's trigger-happy senses. Tonight was a different story.
He stirred, but did not wake. His hand reached out, creeping across soft, barely used covers, although he did not register the sumptuous sensation. His upper arm - and the spiralling tattoo on it, solid black against the paleness of his skin - appeared briefly, before being swallowed, once again, by the bed covers. Perhaps he dreamt; perhaps he did not.
Sakura's face was striped with slats of shadow, but silvery peach in the spaces between, where moonlight touched. Her breathing was soft, and steady, and did not change when Sasuke's hand settled on her bare shoulder - though she shifted lightly, too, and something of a smile flickered on her lips.
- : -
When she woke in the morning, it was with that same, small smile - as lazy as the daybreak that was flooding the room and rimming her newly arranged belongings with gold. For a few moments, Sakura lay utterly still, unwilling even to turn around and watch the person whose deep, rhythmic breathing and dreamless sleep had been so hard won.
She bit her lip as an unwelcome thought clamoured for attention; mornings like this were not yet to be counted on, for all the sacrifice and war that had come and gone before.
No. Now was not the time to think like that.
She covered his hand with hers - noting, with a surge of amusement, that they'd somehow shifted in their sleep. Reaching out, she lightly traced the ANBU tattoo on his upper arm, careful not to wake him.
Just a moment.
Then the day would begin.
- : -
Even after a week (and two days) in her new apartment, Sakura found the strangest details surprising - the absence of Ino's dirty clothing, which had been found everywhere; the half unpacked boxes cluttering up the small living room; the lack of plants, despite their habit, while under her care, of wilting pathetically in both rain and shine. (At least she hadn't moved into the Uchiha Clan's grounds; neither of them was quite ready for THAT yet.) Immediately following the shock of surprise was a lurch in her stomach that Sakura had come to recognise, over the past week, as uncertainty.
For what, she could not say - though this was probably because she hadn't let herself stop, sit down, and think it through. Sakura defended her hesitation half-heartedly while going through her morning routine (the hospital was always so busy; navigating the rooms while avoiding the various traps Sasuke had spontaneously decided to upgrade was annoying) but it was impossible to avoid the niggling demand, in the back of her mind, for her uncertainty to be thoroughly explored.
Sakura wasn't inexperienced in the art of avoidance, however. She paid inordinate attention to her teeth while brushing them; was overly critical while choosing the components of her breakfast; carefully penned each word of her note to Sasuke, explaining why she'd left early, before reminding herself he'd probably resent the implication he wouldn't know, and crumpling it up; worried briefly about Ino, alone in the apartment they'd shared for the past three years; threw herself into her work at the hospital.
"Thank god you're here," the receptionist on duty muttered, in between sips of deadly strong coffee. "We've been stretched thin overnight."
Sakura frowned, accepting the clipboard the woman handed her - hiding her jolt of dismay at the number of cases, and the severity of the case on the top. "You should have called me in."
"Shizune said you weren't to be bothered," the receptionist answered, before turning to address the three academy-level students waiting in front of reception. "And after your task yesterday, I don't blame her."
Shrugging, Sakura started on her round. It turned out that only that first case was real trouble - the other burns, blunt trauma, stab wounds, and so on, were minor for a ninja town, and most of the patients were merely being kept for overnight observation. In some cases, she did what she could to make them more comfortable, and in all cases, she did what was necessary to keep them healed - in one memorable occasion, this meant retying an academy student who was attempting to escape.
By the time she raised her head again, it was nearly noon, and her bones were aching.
After making sure there were enough medics on duty, Sakura, headache and all, had her lunch break outside the hospital, pager turned on in case of an emergency. The bright sunlight was a welcome relief, though the empty space by her side was not; she had become used to meeting a friend for lunch, but Hinata and Naruto were on a mission (Naruto trying with every word to cheer Hinata up, in the wake of her father's death) and Ino had barely left the apartment after her previous one.
Standing on the steps to the hospital, Sakura hesitated, eyeing the rooftop traffic. A good friend would visit Ino, and try to cheer her up; a best friend would drag Ino out, no matter how much she wanted to sit down, to make up for the timing of her move out coinciding with the period Ino needed her most.
But the effort it would take - not to cross town, but to find the appropriate words of solace, if they did, indeed, exist - seemed daunting.
It was there, while she was hesitating, that Sasuke passed her.
She lifted her head, meeting his eyes across two storeys of air, and a moment later, she had climbed the walls to stand beside Sasuke, who had paused on his way to... wherever he was going. Sasuke wasn't the demonstrative sort, but he stopped, and smiled faintly when their fingers clasped.
"And here I thought you were going to sleep through the alarm clock, too."
He scoffed. "You mean the alarm clock you smashed yesterday? I woke up before you left."
"Aren't you supposed to be recovering?" Sakura said, more seriously.
"Aren't you?" he pointed out, raising a pointed eyebrow.
She conceded the point: Sasuke might have been injured the night before, but she had been the one to heal him, and she wasn't running on full yet. "The hospital's too busy."
"And thanks to the Hokage, so am I," he said, grimacing in the direction of the tower. "I'll see you tonight." He hesitated, then, to her surprise, bent down and kissed her - in full view of the traffic.
The breath rushed out of her body, and she stared at him, wide-eyed. Sasuke didn't do domestic, despite all her little fantasies, in her Academy days, of just that. He did tenderness, sure, and joy, and embarrassing surprise at what it meant to touch her, when they'd first made love - but pecks on the cheek had been as far as he'd gone, when others were watching. Even when they'd first stopped dancing around each other, during that golden honeymoon phase where nothing else mattered - well, to them, in the middle of a war, quite a lot else had mattered.
Sasuke didn't look like he was regretting it. He traversed the rooftops towards his destination.
Clinging to the warm glow at the pit of her stomach, Sakura narrowed her eyes, mentally deciding on the restaurant whose atmosphere could do Ino the most good.
- : -
Why did it have to be Ichiraku's Ramen Stand?
Right, she remembered: because the idea was NOT to get Ino drunk, and an obscene proportion of the places they'd visited since before turning twenty-one aimed to do just that.
Even when Sakura subtly threatened the bartenders, behind Ino's back, not to let her friend get drunk.
Ichiraku's it was!
- : -
Her next round in the hospital was much grimmer than her first. A four-man team had just returned from a venture to the Land of Grass... with seven legs, six arms and one kunai between them. And a trail of blood that only ceased when they were put on stretchers, at the front entrance.
Even Shizune offered no protest when Sakura pushed her collection of non-vital cases onto a different medic and joined Shizune in the heavy-duty room. Not, at least, after Sakura reminded her, "This is what you have me in reserve for."
Shizune sighed. "For as long as we have you, anyway."
Sakura felt her ex-tutor's eyes on the expanse of her arm, which would be free of the ANBU tattoo for some weeks more, although they did not pause in gathering up the required medical supplies.
"Maybe you won't need me," Sakura said wryly. "Hinata's shaping up into a pretty good medic."
If, Sakura did not add, her new duties as clan head would permit her to spend time at the hospital. Hiashi was a month dead, and the Hyuuga Clan had only just settled enough to let Hinata leave on what the Hokage officially called a mission. In reality, Hinata was overqualified, especially with Naruto going along, and it was a chance to clear her head.
"We can never have enough medics," Shizune reminded her, a touch soberly. She hesitated. "I know it's not my place to say anything..."
Sakura, on her way into the room, looked back.
"But that's what's waiting for you," Shizune said, nodding at the patients. One of the helpers had already cut away the ninja's uniform, and against the bruising all over his torso, the unmarked skin of his remaining arm - and the spiral etched on it - was very distinctive. "Are you sure it's what you want?"
Sakura flexed her fingers and didn't reply, because there was that familiar lurch in her stomach that she'd come to know in the past week - and it was not solely confined to the decisions involved in her love life.
- : -
She did not - quite - stumble out of the hospital.
It was nearing dusk, and she was exhausted, and she'd damn well known what being part of ANBU meant before, but somehow...
Not even Ino's tragedy had brought it home quite so strongly. Ino's lover had been in ANBU before his recent death. Ino had been sent to save him, and her failure was keeping her indoors, alone with her grief. It could be Sakura one day, bloodless on that hospital bed, while the people who loved her were left behind. Sakura had known this; accepted it.
Somehow, she found her way onto the bridge she'd frequented as a genin. She wouldn't have much trouble getting to her apartment - it was located mere minutes from the bridge - so there she stayed, elbows propped on the railing, waiting for the faint blue of the sky to fade into true dusk. Watching her reflection in the water gave her a certain degree of peace, as long as she avoided looking at her arm. It was on that bridge that she'd come to know her team; on that bridge that she'd finally done right by Rock Lee.
It was on that bridge, four years ago, that she'd spoken to Sasuke for the first time since his abrupt return - and not far from it that they'd sparred (an excuse for her to whip his butt for daring to TRY to invade Konoha.) It was there that he'd admitted that he was trying his best to earn a place in Konoha, beyond his actions on the battlefield. It was on that bridge, three years ago, that the entire Team Seven had, for the first time since they were twelve, been able to share a meal without recriminations; that, two years ago in the ravages of another war, she'd first kissed Sasuke.
That, one and a half years ago, they'd finally begun a relationship.
Her building smile faded. It hadn't been on the bridge that they'd decided, two weeks ago, to get an apartment together - hesitating over each individual word, though he'd known the taste of her skin as well as she'd known his favourite colour, his favourite food, the fewest words she needed to say to make him laugh. Because they'd both realised that chance meetings that ended in the late hours of the night, or planned meetings that ended up in the tiny apartment he'd been allotted after returning, were not the same as the expectation of waking up next to each other every day. Of sharing the cooking and cleaning, the task of setting up security... of calling a place Home.
There went her peace. Sakura sighed - and it faded abruptly as she heard slow footsteps.
Wearily, Sakura turned, expecting to see some straggler, and wondering if she was motivated enough that yelling unfairly at the unfortunate passer-by would make her feel better. (She knew she was too tired to take her unfathomable frustration out on the training grounds.) But as she caught sight of the person, the sound wavered on her parted lips, faded away and died.
Sasuke, on his part, walked a few steps more - pacing, Sakura thought - before he saw her. Another less Sasuke-savvy person wouldn't have noticed, but Sakura caught his miniscule, almost imperceptible pause of surprise as their eyes met.
She dredged up a smile for him as he joined her by her side.
After a moment, she glanced sideways at him out of the corner of her eye. Even in the fading light, Sakura could see his narrowed eyes as he stared contemplatively back at her - he was making no attempt to hide his scrutiny.
"You look tired," he said bluntly.
"Hard day at the hospital," Sakura answered, taking the opportunity to lean against him, head tilted towards his shoulder. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, relaxing, despite everything, against the warmth, and the faint smell of fire. "And you've been off burning things again."
She felt him shrug; the rough grain of his shirt rubbed against her temple.
Sakura opened her eyes again, watching, but not exactly seeing, leaves bobbing on the surface of the stream as it bubbled quietly beneath the bridge. "You looked like you were thinking hard."
"Hn." When she raised an eyebrow, Sasuke added, "So did you."
"I was just taking a walk before going- " (and she wasn't sure why she hesitated here, when, in her mind, she surely hadn't before) "home."
She knew by the new tension in his body that he'd noticed.
Unwilling to look at him, Sakura stared, or maybe glared, at the long, motionless shadow of the bridge railing - fuzzy and indistinct against the familiar planks. Even so, she thought she could feel his eyes on her again, more intense, if possible, than before. Something seemed to drain out of her, though Sakura couldn't say what, exactly, had gone.
"You mean the apartment," he said.
"Where else would I mean?" she countered.
Sasuke, helpfully, said nothing.
What remained of the quiet peace of the bridge fled entirely, marking the return of Sakura's uneasiness, leaving her feeling like the pit of her stomach was trying to become the top, and didn't care what the rest thought about that. She burrowed closer into the warmth of Sasuke's side, though the windless dusk wasn't exactly chilly, and wondered when that gesture had ceased to become a comfort.
"It IS home," Sakura said forcefully, abruptly. She wasn't sure where that had come from, but knew, once she comprehended it, that she meant every word.
This time, Sasuke did speak. There was an honest question in his voice. "Is it?"
Sakura drew away in dismay. For the first time she noticed his hands; how they were clenched so tightly on the bridge railing that the knuckles had become white. Maybe it was a lead-in to an announcement that he did not feel the same way, or, at least, not as strongly, and the worst part was that she wouldn't even be surprised.
"What do you mean?" She wanted her voice to be steady, maybe even angry, like it had been during their first spar after his return - her fist maybe an inch from his face, and demanding, furiously, the very same thing she asked now. What came out was something closer to a shaky whisper.
She had been wrong. The night was warm, but cold nipped at her limbs, burrowing beneath her skin and flooding everything as it headed towards her heart - which had started pounding so loudly it drowned out almost everything else.
"Tell me, Sasuke," she repeated grimly. "How do YOU think of the apartment?"
Sakura wondered if, this time, perhaps he would answer, instead of letting her be the one to draw it out of him, step by step. But whatever hopes she still had, lodged in her throat, were disappointed; Sasuke was what Sasuke always had been, and though his fist curled even further, though the skin around his eyes tightened in palatable frustration, he said nothing.
It would be inaccurate to say that it struck Sakura, suddenly, that it had been her idea to move into a new apartment, just like it had been her to drag him onto the training grounds, alternately gentling and pounding out his responses; just like it had been her who initiated their first conversation, their first kiss. Rather, the realisation had been floating in the back of her mind for days, buoyed by fear that handling their new life harder than she handled fragile glass would cause it to shatter.
Even today, she remembered, it had been Sakura who'd climbed the hospital walls to join him on the roof.
So it was Sakura who took a step back, somehow too tired to shout at him. "That apartment?" she said. She stared at him a little longer, a foot of worn planks separating them, before turning away. "That life together? I thought it was what you wanted too."
She hadn't meant it to be an ending. Somehow, he seemed to take it like one.
"Wait," he said.
She kept walking; maybe she would be able to think through what it was she wanted to say.
Behind her, she heard a curse and... his fingers wrapped around her arm.
That did make her stop, and she stared disbelievingly as he spun her to face him.
"It IS what I want. A - a life. This life." He fumbled with the words.
Sakura laughed, feeling something in her snap. "You don't have to say that just for me."
"Maybe you're the one regretting this," Sasuke said, blandly.
And that was it. It was as though lightning blazed through her veins. She was too tired to throw chakra behind her punch - like she was too tired, too strained to stop her movement, even if she wanted to - but she could damn well try.
Unfortunately for her, while Sasuke had been injured a day ago, he hadn't been throwing his chakra into an emergency healing either. He reacted quickly; with a hasty step backwards, her fist whistled uselessly past him. There he stayed, watching her warily.
"Don't even start," she hissed, drawing quickly back. "I know what I want. I've known since I was twelve, and damn well knew when I was twenty."
"Maybe I did too," Sasuke said coldly, "when we moved in together." In his anger, his tongue seemed to have loosened. "Maybe I WANT to wake up next to you every day, and... and know I'll see you on the nights we don't have a mission. Sometimes even on nights we do have a mission. But even though we live together now, that hasn't happened once."
"You said you woke up when I left," Sakura reminded him.
"Yes," he said, "just in time to see you rush out."
"I was running late!" She faltered, only remembering the lie in her words when they'd been said.
By his unimpressed scowl, Sasuke knew it too, but he did not address the fact that she'd been advised to rest, after her healing work the day before.
As he took a step forward, he fell under the light cast by the rising moon - and from what she saw on his face, struck by an epiphany, the fight drained out of Sakura, replaced by sudden understanding.
"Maybe you're the one regretting this," he had said.
They'd moved in together suddenly, after Hinata's sudden grief, but before Ino's. Hiashi's death, a heart-attack, had reminded her just how brief life could be even in peace-time, pushing her to stop hesitating, but leap forward and take what she wanted while she still had time. She'd thought that the second event cemented her decision, but in the wake of Ino's grief, was that the truth? Or had her guilt at leaving Ino, just when her best friend needed her most, brought up insecurities about her situation once she had time to stop to think?
The entire time, she'd been trapped in her uncertainty, thinking about how domesticity and Sasuke did not mesh, and wondering if it was the life he wanted too.
The entire time, he'd known she'd been wondering, and had thought she was having second thoughts now that she was experiencing life with him.
It was like the world had suddenly been robbed of sound, of movement, if only to throw every detail of this moment into cuttingly sharp focus. The pounding of her temples eased, and the knot that was her stomach slowly untangled as coolness rushed through her veins, drowning the fire that had pulsed through her. If the flicker in his expression was any indication, Sasuke noticed the shift in the direction of her thoughts before she did.
Sakura shrugged her free hand. "It's just... you. And apartments, and doing chores..."
He glared at her a moment longer. "I've been doing my chores since I was eight. And," he added, quieter now, stretching out a hand to cup her bare arm, "I wouldn't call weekly ANBU missions and defending the village whatever it is you were thinking."
"Domestic," she murmured, resisting the urge to relax against him; instead, she kept her eyes on his face, watching emotion flicker behind those dark eyes.
"Yes, that," Sasuke said absently, his hands cupping her lower back. "Is it so hard to believe that you're not the only part of your life that I... that I love?" It went without saying, after all, that he loved her.
"I don't know," Sakura said wryly, "you seemed pretty focused for a long, long time on getting revenge, and that's much less of an element here."
"I needed revenge," he corrected, and Sakura suppressed the instinct to mutter that he'd only thought he needed it. "That doesn't mean I was happy hunting down... my brother. Not like I... like I am now, if..."
It was as though, without anger, his sentences were once again stilted, but Sakura understood. She smiled slightly, pressing her palms to his chest. "I can't believe you're worried about that, too. I know I've certainly told you 'I love you' more times than you've said it to me."
"And I know you love the life you lead," he pointed out - as close as he could get to admitting his fears that he couldn't be part of it if she didn't let him. That she would maybe choose it over him.
"A life that happens to include you," she said. "That's one of the reasons I love it, Sasuke. What I DIDN'T know was that you loved it too."
Sasuke leaned closer, until their lips were nearly touching, until she could feel his breath brushing against her mouth - the scent of fire. "I didn't say anything," he breathed, a whisper against her warming skin, "because I thought you already knew I agreed. With everything."
She laughed softly, genuinely this time. As she shook her head, their noses rubbed lightly. He bent until their foreheads were pressed together, a low rumble that started beneath her palms, separated from his chest by only a layer of cloth, escaping out of his throat. Every inch of her skin seemed to pulse.
If she leaned forward just a little bit, she could kiss him, out in the quiet darkness, beneath the rising crescent moon. A faint breeze was picking up, brushing across her skin. As she heard his slightly ragged breathing, warm puffs at the corner of her mouth, Sakura reflected that she suddenly wasn't that tired, and the swooping at the pit of her stomach wasn't due to unease at all.
Instead of crossing that last sliver of space, Sakura stepped out of the circle of his arms, peering at him through her lashes. Maybe her life wasn't utter uncertainty after all, but just the right amount.
"Come on," she murmured, twining her fingers between his larger ones, and already thinking about his body heat around her. "Let's go home."
- : -