"Goooood morning, Ino."
The voice was sing-song and overly sunny and came with a very wide smile.
"Whatever," the blonde said through a jaw-cracking yawn.
"Out late again, Ino?" Sakura scolded.
"In all night again, Sakura?" Ino asked, sticking out her tongue. "Shizune's complaining about her back again."
"As usual," said Sakura, before a door swung open and a very pregnant Shizune waddled out.
"Thank goodness you're here, Sakura." Her senpai grabbed her by the wrist. "Please. My back. I haven't slept all night!"
Sakura grinned and nodded as she gently pushed her into a chair. Her hands glowed green as she kneaded muscles and gently snapped vertebrae back into alignment—Shizune grunted and moaned in relief.
"So this is, what, your third baby?" she asked. "You should be used to this by now."
"Oh, it never gets any easier, but it's all worth it in the end when you have that adorable bundle of love to hold." Shizune sighed wistfully, her dark eyes shining. "You'll know what I mean soon enough, Sakura."
"How about you let her get a husband first?" called Ino from behind a stack of files.
Sakura's face spasmed, but she regained her composure and laughed loudly. "Yeah, that would be nice."
Ino added, "Although, she'd need to go out for that to happen."
The clack of heels on hallway tiles made all three women freeze.
"All right—back to work. I'm running a lab, not a massage parlor!" Tsunade's voice boomed off the porcelain walls.
Reluctantly, Shizune shuffled off, though her waddle was noticeably less pronounced.
"Sakura, what the hell are you doing here?" her mentor hissed, glaring. "I told you to spend today training outside."
Sakura could tell that Tsunade knew exactly what she was doing here—and her smile faltered for a second as a voice in her head murmured, Coward.
Quickly pulling her face back into a grin, Sakura said as innocently as she could, "I just have one tiny experiment I need to finish before my new poison is complete. If you let me take care of it this morning, I swear I'll go into the woods and test it out all afternoon!" She thought her face would split if she smiled any wider—she hoped she looked sincere and not maniacal.
Tsunade sighed, defeated. "Okay. Go ahead."
Sakura was already skipping past her into the lab with a melodic, "Thanks, Shishou," when Tsunade grabbed her arm.
"Sakura," she murmured. "You can't hide in here forever. You're going to have to face him one day."
Cold fear dropped into her stomach and she frowned at the thought of seeing Sasuke. She pulled her arm from Tsunade's iron grip, whispering, "Not today."
The last rays of the setting sun were slipping below the horizon as the silent ANBU made their way toward Konoha. Their footfalls on each branch were soundless, barely stirring the leaves. The coming dark made more noise than these shadow-clad assassins.
"There they are."
There was a noticeable relaxation among the men as the massive gates of the Leaf village welcomed them home—doors thrown open wide like waiting arms.
"I hope I make it home in time for dinner. My wife makes curry on Thursdays."
"I'm coming to your house! My wife makes reservations on Thursdays."
The normally reserved men of the ANBU squad chuckled and pushed each other's shoulders affably. Sasuke slowed his pace half a step so he was slightly behind them—just enough to stay out of the conversation.
"What about you, Taichou? What's your wife cooking tonight?"
"Well, after two months of taking care of the kids by herself, I'd better bring something home for dinner if I want a happy wife…and I do want her happy," he added, a humorously lewd edge to his voice as he elbowed one of his comrades knowingly.
Finally noting his absence, one of Sasuke's fellow ANBU turned back to see him leaping through the shadows. "What about…" His question trailed off as he realized his error.
Sasuke had no one waiting with curry. Sasuke had no one running to the door when he came in.
Sasuke had no one who would even care that he'd made it back to Konoha alive.
The short distance to the gate was concluded in silence.
Normally, Sasuke would take to the rooftops as he traveled through Konoha. He told himself it was faster—he didn't have time to slow down for pedestrians—but, deep inside, he knew the truth.
Down on the dusty streets of the Leaf village, he might see her.
Tonight, however, he barely had the energy to lift his feet as he willed himself toward his apartment. With dreams of dropping all his clothes on the floor and stepping directly into a hot shower filling his head, he didn't sense the approaching chakra until it was too late—all he could do was wait for the impending collision.
"Hey, you bastard!" yelled Naruto, slinging his arm around Sasuke's shoulders. "It's about time you got home! I've been home for two days already!"
Almost tripping from Naruto's tackling embrace, Sasuke pushed him off as violently as he could muster in his exhausted state, mumbling, "Get off, idiot."
"Heh. Beat you again!" Naruto punched Sasuke's arm good-naturedly. "That makes the score forty-seven to forty-three. You'll never catch up now, Sasuke. I'm on a roll!"
"Glad to see you learned how to count while I was away, moron," Sasuke sneered, trying to inject as much bored cynicism into his voice as possible.
Naruto's irritating habit of keeping track of who completed their mission first grated on Sasuke. As much as he'd like to chalk it up to Naruto being childish, Sasuke knew that being on the losing side of the scoreboard ignited his competitive side.
Glancing over at his teammate, Sasuke couldn't help but smirk at the way he pranced awkwardly down the street, his hands tucked behind his head, smug with the satisfaction of winning—Naruto never changed.
A small flicker of sadness passed through Sasuke when he thought about the real reason behind this ridiculous contest—it was Naruto's way of keeping them linked, of keeping them together as a team.
Sasuke was overcome by a wave of nostalgia. For a moment, he felt the carefree lightness of being a Leaf genin again, burdened only by his need to be a better shinobi than his stupid best friend.
The reality of his years away from Konoha—and all his dark transgressions—came crashing back when a bouquet of flowers unexpectedly appeared in Sasuke's face.
Panic caused him to come to a sudden stop as he stared down at the delicate, pink blooms. Heat crawled across his face as ice filled his stomach. Why did they make him feel such…
A giggle drew his attention to the blushing brunette who held them out.
"These are for you," she said, biting her lip and glancing at him with flirty shyness.
A spike of anger clamped his hands into fists as he fixed her with a red-eyed glare. The shining eyes that had hoped to catch his attention opened wide with terror as Sasuke's fury escalated.
"Sasuke? You coming?" Naruto yelled over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed with concern.
Naruto's voice brought Sasuke back to reality and, with a huff, he blinked his eyes to their usual inky black. His hands still clenched, he side-stepped the now-cowering girl and stomped down the street.
Women jumping into his path elicited, at the most, a bored sigh from Sasuke—it happened way too often for him to get angry about anymore. But the unexpected flash of pink, and all the feelings that came with it, pushed him over the edge.
As he neared, Naruto fell into step beside him, saying, "You know, Sakura beat us both home by four days! I don't even know how much she's winning by anymore!" He pouted and made a show of shoving his hands in his pockets and kicking a stone out of the path in mock-depression. When Sasuke sighed his relief, his hands unclenching and his shoulders dropping, Naruto smiled wickedly at him.
"You weren't worried about Sakura-chan, were you, Sasuke?"
As much as Naruto tried to bait him on this subject, Sasuke would never talk about her.
"Just worried that you haven't learned how to count that high yet." He smirked and Naruto glared back with a half-smile.
"Well, I'm off," Naruto said, slapping Sasuke on the back. "We need to get the team together for some training. Soon?" he questioned, looking hopeful.
How many times since his return had Naruto asked him this same question? How many times had Sasuke flatly refused, not even giving his friend a reason? He wasn't sure, but tonight, Sasuke didn't have it in him to say no. Maybe it was because in Naruto's too-bright smile Sasuke saw that there was someone who cared that he was home.
"Sure," he said with a half-hearted wave as he watched a beaming Naruto take off across the Konoha rooftops.
Leaving a trail of weapons and clothing in his wake, Sasuke stepped into his shower and turned the taps on full blast. Lathering up his hands, he elbowed the hot water faucet higher—the heat seared across his back.
He felt the layers of dirt and dried blood rinse away as he shampooed his hair, scraping his nails roughly across his scalp. Another twist of the tap filled the room with swirling curls of steam. With mountains of soap spilling from his hands, Sasuke washed the grime from his skin. He scrubbed and scoured until nothing but pure, white foam ran down the drain.
Lathering up again, Sasuke's weary thoughts drifted to that soft pink bouquet. A single word whispered in his head—Coward.
Here he was, one of the strongest shinobi Konoha had produced in decades, and a few carnations could stop him in his tracks. Disgust loomed as he thought about what a fraud he was when a stinging sensation across his chest halted his movements. Looking down, Sasuke realized that he'd scrubbed himself so hard that he was bleeding. He watched the injury pale under the hot water as bright red blood trickled down his body and into the pipes beneath the Leaf.
Snapping off the faucet, he ran his hand down his face and exhaled—he was tired, that's all. He stepped out of the shower and wiped the haze from the mirror to see that his skin was deeply flushed from the heat of the scalding water.
Exhausted, he closed his eyes for a second—suddenly, his mind resurrected a memory of crackling, blue lightning and terror in wide, green eyes.
He slammed his fist down on the counter as hot anger surged through him—why had he done it? What kind of monster had he become that he could attempt to take the life of his own teammate? One of his most precious…
He looked down at the red welts he'd scratched into his skin and realized he would never be worthy of Sakura's forgiveness.
The bite of cold night air made Sakura shiver slightly, but she was glad for the reviving slap in the face. Despite her teacher's warning, she'd sequestered herself in the lab all day. It had all been worth it, though, as she thought about the possibilities her new drug would have in battle situations.
Successes like this one were the reason Sakura enjoyed her research. Mentally dissecting chemical compounds and recombining them with chakra challenged her intellect and, more importantly, occupied her mind. Working long hours in the seclusion of the lab kept her from dwelling on subjects she didn't want to think about—black-haired subjects with dark red eyes that could see past her charade, that could see the unrequited love still inside of her.
Sakura shook away those thoughts—determined not to let her heart best her head—when she was suddenly lifted from the ground and slung over someone's shoulder. Vertigo threatened and she closed her eyes against the swirling dizziness as she was swung in circles.
"Ugh, Naruto! Put me down. Now!" she grunted. When her feet touched the ground, she opened her eyes to see her blond teammate rubbing his neck and grinning.
"Sorry, Sakura-chan. I'm just so happy to see you out of that dungeon."
"It's not a dungeon. It's a lab, Naruto. One day, you'll be glad I slaved away in there when you're yakking up some Sound shinobi's poison," she said, hands on her hips—she hoped she looked threatening, despite the lingering wooziness.
"It's not that I don't appreciate what you do, Sakura-chan. It's just that I never get to see you anymore."
Although she recognized that Naruto was trying to manipulate her with the sad puppy look, Sakura melted—she couldn't stay mad at that face. She linked her arm with his and tugged.
"Come on. Walk me home."
Looking at Naruto always left Sakura feeling guilty, too. He reminded her of giddy days spent running through sunlight with her two favorite boys steadfast at her side. She knew it was Naruto's desperate hope to bring all three members of Team Seven back together again—to become whole again.
He slanted a wily look her way and said, "I saw Sasuke. He just got home tonight." His mouth slowly curled up into a devious smile that Sakura couldn't help but giggle at. Soon, they were both howling with laughter at their tardy teammate, stumbling, as if drunk, down the street.
Their laughter dying down, Sakura bragged, "Looks like I've got you both beat by a mile."
"Don't remind me. But at least I'm still beating Sasuke!" he crowed, walking taller.
Sadness pierced Sakura in that moment. She wanted so badly to give Naruto back the team—the family—he so desperately wanted. But she knew she couldn't. She'd crossed a line when she sought out Sasuke with the intention of ending his life. Her act wasn't a desperate self-defense move—that, she thought, could be forgiven. No, it was premeditated—fully planned. She'd considered all of her options before setting out to kill her teammate.
"I asked him again, Sakura-chan, if we could all get together for some team training, and do you know what he said this time?"
"No, Naruto. What?" Although she'd said no, a shiver passed through her as Naruto's hopeful expression was a dead giveaway.
"He said sure. What do you think of that?"
Pulling a cardboard container from the microwave, Sasuke grabbed a pair of chopsticks and headed for the fresh air of his apartment's small balcony. A cool breeze ruffled his damp hair as he plopped into a chair and poked at his fried noodles.
Lights winked in and out across the Konoha landscape like lightning bugs in a summer sky. Sasuke wondered which of those lights belonged to his ANBU squad members—they were not his teammates, a voice in his head reminded him. Was that light from the kitchen where homemade curry was being lingered over? Was that the bedroom where children were being hugged and tucked in? The light that had just turned off, was that his taichou and his happy wife? Sasuke sighed as he pushed the noodles around in their container, his appetite suddenly gone.
Sasuke knew his ANBU squad never asked, but they wondered why he was even here in Konoha—why he didn't just make a life for himself somewhere else. It wasn't like Sasuke had anything to come home to. But Sasuke had a very good reason for staying in the Leaf. Six blocks over, behind the water tower, three windows from the left, his reason was sleeping peacefully.
He would stay here and protect Sakura, whether she wanted him to or not. He owed her that much at least.
Sasuke sighed at the bright, fall moon and thought he should try to write up his mission report. Back inside, he slid a scroll open across the table and scratched out the facts of his last job—the standard language of a mission report rolling easily from his pen. It wasn't until he came to the details, the particular events that made this mission unique, that he faltered.
He recalled traveling, fighting, and traveling again. Who had he fought exactly? Where had he just been? And why? Sasuke took up his pen again as a flash of snow and mountains came to him. No, he realized, that memory was from a prior mission. A shudder passed through him—why was one mission running into another? Why was his life becoming nothing more than a blur?
As he slid into bed, pulling the covers high over his head like a cocoon, Sasuke wondered numbly if this was how he'd die—just fading away little by little.
"He said sure. What do you think of that?"
Reflecting on it as she crawled under her covers that night, Sakura truthfully didn't know what to think of Sasuke's answer. Previously, Naruto had made excuses for Sasuke's absences, saying Tsunade kept him running in and out of the village, but he was positive that soon—very soon—Sasuke would be ready to train and then Team Seven would make a comeback.
Sakura just didn't see that ever happening.
Team Seven had been irrevocably broken the day she held a shaking kunai to the uchiwa on Sasuke's back. Bile rose in her throat as she recalled his strong hand enveloping her neck. She wondered with regret why he couldn't have squeezed just a little tighter.
Now, she spent her days running and hiding. She buried her face in her pillow, overcome with shame.
"I'm such a coward," she mumbled, thinking of day after day spent skulking in the lab so she wouldn't have to see him. Tsunade's words rang in her head…
"You're going to have to face him one day."
But days came and went, one blurring into the next, and her only hope was…
So...new story. My first chaptered fic. Not gonna lie-my palms are sweating!
Thanks have to go to Unicorn Paige for her editing and for listening to my endless whining. Thanks, Paige!
Please review and let me know what you think...or I'll just continue to sweat alone!