A/N: Happy Valentine! Here is a present from me—a one-shot that was supposed to be finished sometime around December, but I guess better late than never, ne?
What Hurts the Most
Early on a Monday morning, Sakura found herself standing, rather nervously, on the porch of the notorious Uchiha Mansion, green eyes studying her surroundings with a muted sense of awe. She had always known that the Uchiha District had to be grandiose, had looked at it from afar in all the years Sasuke had been gone, but she had never quite managed the courage to enter the old, secluded area—not even when she missed him most.
Now, she could say for sure—the place was something straight out of a fairytale.
The streets were deserted, and the paint on the walls had faded. There were cracks in the pavement, and running along the occasional red and white fan printed on the walls. It was clear that those aspects had taken away from its beauty, so if it impressed her as it was, Sakura had to wonder how it must have been like back when the Uchiha clan was still alive.
Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the large, mahogany door once again.
Sasuke had returned to Konoha two months prior, but between missions, paperwork, and double shifts, she had hardly had time to exchange more than two words with him.
Not that he had shown any interest in communicating, she remembered, biting down on her lower lip.
Perhaps this would serve to bring them closer, to strengthen the weakened bond between them—or, in his case, to create a new one.
She needed this—there was no doubt in her mind that she did. But perhaps even more than that, she needed him—she needed her team, and she needed her teammate, back.
Taking one final deep breath, she raised her hand and knocked twice on the wooden door, sending a small prayer to the Gods that Sasuke was inside. She had no way of knowing anything about his daily activities, but from her memories, the Uchiha had never quite been a morning person, so he was unlikely to be out of the house before midday on his first day without ANBU surveillance and community service—on his first day of freedom.
True enough, the door before her swung open only seconds after she had knocked, revealing the object of her thoughts.
He, however, did not look as happy as her logic told her he should be. He was dressed in his usual attire, long black pants and a simple, navy T-shirt which had, without a doubt, the Uchiha fan emblazoned on its back. His hair was in its usual messy state, his features as flawless and as emotionless as always. There was nothing about him that hinted at annoyance—except for his eyes. His dark, bottomless eyes that burned into her own, piercing her body, ripping her chest open and crushing what was left of her heart.
His bloodline limit was a part of himself, a part of his family, but it also suited him better than it could have suited anybody else, she believed. She had never met another Uchiha, and perhaps she never would, but it had always been her impression that his eyes were intense enough even without the Sharingan—like a warning, a telltale sign of what could come next.
"Hi, Sasuke-kun," she greeted, offering him a small, nervous smile. Her heart skipped a beat at the sight of him, just like it had always done, but she had to look up at him now, and there was no fooling her mind—she could not recognize the man standing before her. And the harsh truth was—her instinct told her she should fear him.
She got no answer to her greeting, the only sign that he had heard her being the eyebrow he had raised.
Heaving a sigh, Sakura decided to cut straight to the chase. "Um," she started, tucking a lock of pink hair behind her ear in a nervous gesture, "I was wondering…"
"No," he immediately answered, voice cold and harsh.
Her head snapped up in shock. "You didn't even—"
"I don't care," he snapped, cutting her off. "Go away."
The words were like a slap to her face. She stood there for a moment more, looking at him, searching his eyes for regret, but finding none. Sasuke stared back at her, patiently waiting, his dark gaze and guarded expression betraying nothing of what he was feeling, or what he was thinking.
But it seemed like, for once, his words had said it all.
Exhaling heavily, Sakura nodded. "Okay," she whispered.
Her shoulders slumped as she turned and began to walk away, hand holding onto the strap of her bag, gaze set on the ground. Inside, her heart was breaking. But outside, there were no tears in her eyes.
Rejection… It was something she was used to—something that Sasuke himself had taught her.
He was at the market when he saw her again. Barely a week had passed since she appeared on his doorstep, but to her credit, she had stopped bothering him. Sure, she had not told him she would stop bothering him, but her eyes had said it all, and somehow, Sasuke had managed to read them.
It would be a lie to say that he was upset by the conclusion he had reached—and by her determination. He was disconcerted, yes, but that was only because, coming from her, that was unusual. But he convinced himself that the change was for the better—anything if it got her out of his hair.
He was wondering whether she would say hello to him when he heard her voice, already engaged in a conversation with someone else.
He pushed memories of a long time ago, when she used to only have eyes for him, out of his mind.
"Hi, Neji," he heard her greet, and his brows furrowed at the mixture of warmth and nervousness in her voice. Against his better judgment, he turned to face in their direction. "I want to ask you something…"
She was dressed simply, in a pair of white shorts and a flowery top, with matching ballet flats and a small bag slung across her shoulders. Her pink hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, and if she had any make up on, Sasuke didn't notice.
The Hyuuga gave a small, almost imperceptible nod.
Sakura bit her lip, wringing her hands nervously. "Um… I was wondering if you could help me train."
His brows furrowed. "Don't you have a sensei for that?"
All three of them seemed to know perfectly well who he was referring to.
Sakura shook her head sadly. "Not really."
There was a brief moment of contemplation before Neji nodded. "I will help you. But—"
"Whenever you have time," she interrupted, a brilliant smile lighting up her features. "And whenever you want. I really just want to learn."
His heart clenched strangely in his chest. Could it be that… that was the reason why she was on his doorstep that day? He turned her away without even listening to what she had to say…
No, he thought, shaking his head. It was impossible. She was a fan-girl! Even if she did want to learn, she would have probably used that as a simple pretext to be near him.
And if there was one thing in the world that Sasuke hated with every fiber of his being, that was lies—lies and pretenses.
Early on a certain Uchiha's birthday, Yamanaka Ino could be found being dragged through the village by her childhood best friend.
"I think an Akita Inu would be best," the pinkette announced, eyes fixed on a brochure she had snatched from a pet-shop a few days prior. "Don't you? I mean, I think it would be perfect. It says here that they don't even smell!"
"Let me get this straight," Ino spoke from beside her, "You're buying Sasuke a dog because it doesn't smell?"
"No, Ino." She rolled her eyes. "I'm buying Sasuke a dog that doesn't smell because it's his birthday."
"I know, but… a dog?" she questioned, frowning unsurely.
"He needs a companion," she insisted. "And you know how he hates human company."
"That makes sense," the blonde indulged. "But still… this is Sasuke we're talking about, Forehead. You know—broody, emotionless, ice-cub-y Sasuke."
"Look," she started, composure intact, "If he doesn't want the dog, I'll take it. My landlady has three cats. I don't think another animal would bother her. It's the intention that matters, really."
The blonde scoffed. "Sakura, are you truly aware of who we're shopping for right now?"
She simply rolled her eyes.
Ino sincerely thought her optimism was astonishing.
It was already late at night when Sasuke was finally able to lie down in his bed and close his eyes. One would think that birthdays were supposed to be relaxing, but with a clueless loudmouth and a tactless idiot as his self-proclaimed 'friends', the Uchiha should have known that would be impossible in his case.
He wondered why he had even opened the door to them, and told himself it was because Naruto would have broken it down otherwise.
A part of him claimed that their company had not been as torturous as he wanted to make it seem. He had planned on spending his birthday alone, like he had done for so many years now. Of course, 'planned' was a word that implied some sort of organization, and was therefore, quite unfitting, because he hadn't given the matter much thought, in the first place. He had stopped worrying over such trivial things ever since his parents passed away, and there was no one there to wish him 'happy birthday'.
That seemed to have changed now, though.
He was contemplating the idea of whether that was actually a good thing when his keen ears picked up a slight noise coming from the hallway. But before he could jump up and whip out the kunai he kept hidden underneath his pillow, he recognized the subtle presence, and every fiber of his being relaxed on its own accord.
His coal-black eyes rose to look at the door when it was pushed open gently, and a familiar pink head peaked out from behind it. She smiled upon seeing him awake, despite the mixture of boredom and annoyance that was surely displayed in his gaze, and took another step inside so that he could now see her better.
"Hey," she greeted softly.
She was dressed in a pair of rumpled scrubs and a simple, white T-shirt; her pink hair was up in a messy ponytail, and there were dark circles underneath her eyes. But perhaps the most important aspect—there was a small bundle of moving, brownish-white fur in her arms, with a large, navy bow on top.
"Sorry for being late. There was an emergency at the hospital, and—" She cut herself short.
Had something flashed in his eyes for her to stop so suddenly? he wondered.
"I just wanted to tell you 'happy birthday'."
Sasuke swallowed heavily. Her voice was soft and quiet and rather insecure, and although he had heard a lot of raucous declarations that day, far more than he would have wanted, hers seemed to be the sincerest of them all.
But why was she even here? Hadn't she promised she'd keep away? Hadn't she promised she'd stop bothering him?
With a huff, he rolled over so that his back was facing her. "Go away, Sakura." His command was cold, harsh, and left no room for argument.
There was a moment of silence before she gathered the courage to speak. Sasuke could feel her chakra—sad, tired, conflicted.
"Okay," she said, and she sounded so close to tears that his heart clenched in his chest just like his fist closed tightly around his bed sheets. Anger broke free in his system, and he was one step away from yelling at her, for telling her to stop caring, because he didn't want her to care, when her small voice rang out again. "I'll leave. But… at least take a look at this little guy. He's adorable. And maybe—"
"I don't need a dog," he snapped.
"Okay," was her only answer—a broken, but resigned whisper. "Happy birthday, Sasuke."
The door slid shut with a soft click after a mere moment, and he was left alone—alone with the all-consuming darkness and piercing silence of the night.
She was dressed in her favorite pair of pink pajamas when she exited the bathroom that night. Her hair was wet and little droplets of water were clinging to her neck; her already damp skin erupted into goose-bumps as the chilly night air hit her. The window was opened, and a slight breeze blew lightly inside the bedroom, unsettling the organza curtains.
Heaving a weary sigh, she padded softly to the bed, slipping underneath the covers. Resting her head on the pillow, uncaring of her still wet hair, she pulled the blanket up to her shoulders and snuggled deeper into the comfortable mattress, ready to drift off in an instant.
But then the sound of small paws padding against the hardwood floor reached her ears, and she smiled in spite of her exhaustion.
The mattress dipped sharply as a small weight suddenly dropped upon it.
"I thought I told you to stay on the couch."
It came across as a mild surprise when she realized just how big the part of her that had been expecting Sasuke to reject her gift was. She had hardly felt affected. Then again, her heart was already broken into tiny little splinters. She had long since given up on the idea of putting them back together, and the area had remained pleasantly numb.
July twenty-third… And to think just how much she had been looking forward to this day.
It was hard to pinpoint what exactly she had been dreaming about. Him being happy with her present? Appreciating the effort? Smirking at her? Maybe giving her a small grunt?
Sakura smiled sadly. How long had it been since he'd last grunted at her? She could hardly remember anymore. And the worst part of it all was that she really couldn't understand where she had stepped wrong. She used to want more from him. She used to dream about fairytales where he was her knight in shining armor. She had grown. She had given up on her dreams. Now, she simply wanted to be close to him—as a friend, as a teammate, as an acquaintance. Because Sakura truly did care about him—so much that it was painful.
He had gone out with Naruto, of course. She'd heard that the blond had even dragged Sai along. She wished she would have been able to go with them… But would he have wanted her there? Had she ever truly been a part of Team Seven? Could she be called a teammate when all she ever did was stand aside and watch as her boys got hurt taking hits for her? She doubted that.
Everybody deserves a second chance…
Liars… Where was hers? When was the last time one of them had asked her to spar? Oh. Naruto—right before Sasuke returned. But of course. He got his best friend back. What could he possibly need her for now?
She felt bad for thinking of Naruto that way, because he was sweet and naïve and he genuinely loved her, but other than heal his wounds and treat him to ramen sometimes, give him an advice and a kiss on the cheek, what role did she play in his life? He was the Forth's son. He was sunny and bright and orange and still Naruto, but… but he was not her Naruto anymore. Not that reckless little boy who was too loud and determined for his own good. He had grown… and along with that—along with everything—she had steadily been pushed out of his life.
What place did she have in the grand scheme of things? None.
And Sasuke… Sasuke was worse. He didn't want her help. He didn't accept even the tiniest things she tried to do for him. He flat-out pushed her away. But maybe it was better that way, she thought.
A small whine reached her ears, and she gave another sad smile. "You and I have to take care of each other now," she whispered, her hand rubbing the puppy's fur gently. "We only have each other."
And from that day onwards, Sakura decided that the best was to stay away from them. It was time to think of herself.
A bitter smile spread on her features as she realized that she was a lost cause—as long as they were in close proximity, they would always come first. But at least she could take comfort in the fact that they would never see that. After all, they didn't need her to put them first—they were strong.
And they had each other.
When Naruto woke him up the following day by pounding the hell out of his front door, Sasuke knew exactly what had happened.
"You're an ass, you know that?" he snapped as soon as the door swung open. His arms were crossed over his chest and his face was set in a no-nonsense expression that Sasuke had only seen once before. Even his tone was clipped.
But there were few things that could intimidate Uchiha Sasuke, and a serious Naruto was definitely not one of them. So he remained quiet. He would let him get everything out of his system, and then shut the door in his face, because really, he had nothing he wished to say to him.
"She doesn't really expect anything from you anymore, you know?" he said. "Smart girl—she realized you have nothing you want to give her. All she wanted… was to remain in your life. She didn't even want to be your teammate anymore. But she wanted to be there in case you ever needed her."
"I don't need her," was his automatic answer.
Naruto rolled his eyes. "Sure you don't," he supplied sarcastically, before fixing him with a piercing stare. "I know what you're doing," he informed him. "You're not the only one who's lost things. You're not the only one who finds it hard to open up and take a chance. You're pushing her away, acting like you don't care, when, in fact, you're doing it exactly because you care. You want to protect her. And maybe even more importantly, you want to protect yourself—because you wouldn't stand to lose another precious person. But, you know? You could lose her one day, either way. And whether you push her away now or not won't make a difference—it won't change what you feel for her. And when she's gone and you realize you've wasted all the time you could have spent with her… that will hurt. Really badly. And maybe you'd deserve it—I don't know. But you should wake the fuck up. And you should make a decision. You never know how much time you have left." His eyes softened, and his voice lost its hardness as he stuffed his hands into his pockets and turned to leave. "You of all the people should know that, Sasuke."
Sasuke cursed the cold as he slowly trudged his way through the snowy streets of his hometown. Winter had installed itself there months before, but the weather had never been quite as bad as it was now. Wave after wave of fat snowflakes fell from the sky—and in such a manner that it made him wonder whether they were ever going to stop.
He hated the cold. He hated the snow. He hated winter in general. For him, there was no nonsense such as 'the magic of the holidays' or 'the beauty of seeing everything covered in white'. No, for him, there were just annoying blizzards and dizzying amounts of snow that made mundane tasks harder to complete and missions more complicated than they should be.
Scowling, he buried his face further into his dark scarf, the wind playing with his hair and biting at his exposed skin. Watching the crowd move about would only dampen his mood further, so he preferred to keep his gaze focused on the road stretching before him. That, until he sensed a familiar chakra signature pulsing nearby.
Under normal circumstances, he could care less about that. She tended to avoid him now, but they lived in the same village, and worked under the same Hokage, so this was not the first time that he sensed her in the vicinity. But it was the first time he sensed her in this part of the town, at this particular hour. Most of the times, she was coped up inside the hospital, and even when she wasn't, their schedules differed greatly—and so did the places they visited.
Curiosity pulled at him until he lifted his eyes from the ground and moved them in the direction of where he had sensed her presence. His senses hadn't failed him. Because sure enough, there she was, sitting at a table near the window in a relatively new café. Only that she was not alone.
There was a man facing her. His back was to him, but the long brown hair and pale skin was as good as an indication as any as to who he was.
His dark gaze slowly returned to Sakura. It was probably stupid of him to say this, but she seemed different—and he wasn't pleased to realize exactly why that was.
She was dressed in a purple sweater dress and tall black boots, with her hair styled and her make-up done. She was smiling and laughing and tucking her hair behind her ear, titling her head to the side in that cute manner she always used to do when she was talking to him—a gesture that used to tell him that she genuinely cared about him, not that she was infatuated with him.
Her hands were lying on the table—and they were covered by a pair of larger ones.
Everything clicked, and he saw red. He barely realized that his Sharingan was spinning until his chakra began to surge angrily through his veins, rage sizzling beneath the surface of his skin. He stood there for a moment more, the biting wind slapping against his face. Then he turned his scowl away from the window and returned to trudging through the snow covering the road the led to his house.
He ignored the voice in the back of his head that whispered that it could have been him in Neji's place now.
Ino invited him to a surprise-party the day Sakura turned eighteen.
Sasuke seriously contemplated slamming the door in her face. He had gone to sleep later than usual the night before, and a stupid gash he got during training kept opening up and staining everything with blood. Of course, Sasuke—being Sasuke—preferred to patch it up himself rather than make a trip to the hospital and risk bumping into his ex-teammate. It wasn't that he couldn't stand the sight of her. She was of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. But she was annoying, and the air between them was awkward—and Sasuke hated awkward.
There was a whisper in his head that made him think twice about rejecting Ino's offer right away, though.
He slammed the door in her face.
Then he went to brood in his living room.
There was no reason for which he should go to her birthday. True, she was turning eighteen, and that was usually considered a big event. With Ino as the organizer, the 'surprise party' would definitely end up a monster; she wouldn't even see him if he chose not to be seen. The question was: why would he go? He wanted nothing to do with her, and he had made that obvious. Why would he turn up at her birthday party when he had kicked her out of his house for wanting to wish him a simple 'happy birthday' on his own? The answer would be logical: not only would he not—he could not.
But there were times when Sasuke was anything but logical, and this was one of them.
Sakura had barely started her early-morning shift when two strong, familiar arms suddenly wrapped around her waist. Dropping the chart she had been studying, she leaned back into her boyfriend's muscular body, a small smile pulling at her lips as he buried his face into the crook of her neck.
"Hmm," she hummed pleasantly, "What brings you here so early?" She knew he couldn't possibly be injured; Neji never got hurt during training, and there was no mission to speak of at the moment.
"You did check the date today, did you not?" She could hear the smirk in his voice.
Her smile widened, and she slowly turned around to face him, her arms snaking around his neck. "Do you have something to tell me?"
Neji smirked. "I have something to give you."
"I'm afraid that won't be enough," she teased.
She was positive he had to be smiling when he bent down and sweetly pressed his lips to hers. There was more to Hyuuga Neji than what people liked to think, and truth to be told, she felt rather lucky that she had the chance to discover that.
"Happy birthday," he murmured against her lips.
She grinned. "And my present?" she prompted, without pulling away. Sakura loved presents, and there was hardly a person in Konoha who didn't know that.
Neji smirked. "Well—" But before he could finish his sentence, she was suddenly ripped away from his arms with a yelp and a curse.
"Come on, Forehead, you can make out with your boyfriend later! Only you would think about working today, sheesh!"
Finding her a present proved to be so far from being a challenge that it was almost laughable. His feet led the way—right into his parents' bedroom. His hands opened a drawer and grasped a midnight-blue velvet box, which his fingers expertly opened.
The piece of jewelry had belonged to his mother, and it was one of the few invaluable reminders he had left from her. It seemed stupid, even to him—giving this random girl something of such great importance. But it felt right. And as he stared down at the twinkling diamonds, Sasuke realized that he couldn't see it on any other hand than hers.
The music was blasting in his ears as soon as he stepped inside the club. The lights, colorful and flashy, almost hurt his eyes. Having a hearing of great finesse such as that of a ninja, the loudness bothered him, so much that a scowl soon took residence upon his features. Adding to his discomfort, the smell of cigarettes and alcohol, mixed with the one of expensive perfumes permeated his senses, and almost made him drunk. Why did people even prefer this form of entertainment again?
The interior of the club bespoke of luxury. The high, vaulted ceiling was covered in red velvet, and so were the vacant chairs; the tables were made out of solid wood, decorated subtly with touches of gold satin, and were pushed up against the external walls. Before him, across the crowded dance-floor, he could spot a long, wooden bar. Two staircases on each side of the large room led up to the upper level that hugged the walls in a circular manner, leaving only the middle of the room, along with the wall behind him—the entrance—exposed.
To his left, on a platform in front of the stairs, Sasuke noticed that a table had apparently been set up for the presents—a table that was obviously too small for the amount of people who knew and loved Sakura. Taking out the small box from the pocket of his pants, he slowly made his way up and set it gently in a corner, beside a brightly-packaged paper bag. Curiosity pulling at him, he scanned the mountain of presents carefully. There were boxes stacked upon boxes, paper bags huddled together, brightly colored materials hanging out of them, tulle and silk altogether.
A roaring cheer, steadily growing in intensity caught his attention, and he turned around, hands stuffed in his pockets. From the deserted platform, he had a perfect view of what was happening.
They had brought her the cake—a large, chocolate cake with her name emblazoned on it in bright pink letters and eighteen candles, equally pink, waiting to be blown. Everyone was crowded around her, from her closest friends, to people that were total strangers to Sasuke. To her right, he could make out Naruto's blond hair, and right in front of her, her enthusiastic best friend was cheering her on the loudest.
But his eyes were drawn to her—and her alone.
He didn't think he had ever seen her look so beautiful. Her green eyes were brought out by heavy, dark make-up, her long, thick lashes framing them perfectly, enhancing their bright color. Her lips were stained the lightest pink, her cheeks dusted with blusher. Her pink hair—longer than he remembered—tumbled down her back and shoulders in shiny, bouncy curls. She was wearing a white, lace dress with sleeves that came to her elbows and hems that brushed her mid-thighs. Her feet were clad in a pair of beige high-heels, calling attention to her long, slightly tanned legs.
And she was smiling—practically glowing with happiness.
Unconsciously, Sasuke's eyes softened at the sight of her.
Encouraged by her friends' cheers, she leaned in and, closing her eyes, blew all the candles. The crowd erupted in applause, and she opened her eyes, smiling widely. Naruto yelled something from her right that made her laugh, throwing her head back. Then she looked behind her, to her left, and her grin melded into something else—something far gentler, and with much more emotion.
It was then that Sasuke noticed the man standing by her side, his face no longer just another nondescript one in the crowd.
Still smiling, she leaned in and pressed her lips to his, earning whistles, cat-calls and a series of aww's from the people surrounding them.
Sasuke's hands clenched into tight fists in his pockets. Red eyes suddenly glaring at them, he stormed down the stairs, and never once looked back.
The morning following her birthday, Sakura found herself sitting on the floor in the middle of her room, sorting through the enormous pile of presents that had miraculously appeared in her house, courtesy of her best friend's old genin squad. The blonde had been in charge of the entire event, and every available friend had been commanded to help.
Sakura could not complain; the party had been amazing. She had had fun, and she had no doubt that it would remain engraved in her memory for the rest of her life.
The number of people that had turned up had been astonishing, and consequently, so was the number of presents that had appeared in her bedroom overnight. She had received clothes, shoes, jewelry and books, little reminders of moments spent with friends, photo albums and collages, souvenirs and hand-made little nothings—and she was currently in the middle of the process of sorting through them all.
A tall pile of clothes had already formed on the bed behind her, while boxes of shoes were stacked up beside her. Not only did she feel honored that so many people loved her, but she also felt content that they all seemed to know her so well. She had friends to value. A smile lit up her features as she raised her head to look at the humongous, glaringly orange stuffed fox that occupied an entire armchair in the corner of her room. She had teammates to value.
Time had slowly but surely solved everything, just like she had thought it would. And now, with little exceptions, she could say she was overall truly happy with her life.
Reaching for another colorful paper bag, she perked up when a small, rectangular, navy-blue velvet box she had not noticed before fell to the floor with a muted thud. Her brows furrowed. She was naturally intrigued, because this must be the most monotonously wrapped present she had received that year, so she reached for it and quietly pulled it open.
Then she promptly dropped it to the floor, a gasp ripping from her throat.
Twinkling diamonds stared back at her, precious stones that blurred together as her mind raced to make sense of what was happening.
She knew better than to believe it was a fake, because it was the most obvious thing in the world that those were authentic. She had never seen anything quite so precious in her life. But who could have possibly given this to her?
Frowning, she picked the small box up and stood, quickly ambling her way through the cluster on the floor until she reached the hallway.
"Neji," she called, walking briskly into the kitchen to see him in the process of lifting a white-colored mug to his lips. He had escaped the madness of her bedroom under the pretext of cooking breakfast, but Sakura had known better than to believe him. Stopping to look at him, she raised the box, showing him the expensive bracelet. "Did you give me this?"
The Hyuuga furrowed his brows. "No," he said. "You know what my present was, Sakura."
"There's no note," she whispered to herself as she looked back down at the box cradled in her hands, her mind struggling to make a connection her heart was warning her not to.
Silence stretched over them—a heavy, loaded sort of silence that Sakura had learned to hate.
It was Neji who broke it when he lowered his cup to the counter. "I believe both you and I know perfectly well who gave that to you, Sakura," he stated.
The pinkette looked up at him, green eyes wide and innocent—and practically begging him to believe her that she didn't. But they betrayed her—because, deep inside, she did know. And she did hurt.
Feeling the familiar sensation of tears beginning to prickle at the corners of her eyes, she looked back down. There was understanding in his gaze, wisdom that she had come to associate with him. He could read her perfectly, see right through her. And she wanted nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow her whole.
"How do you forget someone when they do things like these?" she whispered helplessly, more to herself than to him, the vision of her present blurring as hot tears invaded her eyes.
His voice was gentle when he answered her. "You don't."
"You know what bothers me?" she asked, her voice shaking, looking up at him from across the room. "That he doesn't want me. That he doesn't need me. That he is a selfish bastard that keeps me tied to him because he can't stand to watch me living my life."
"Have you ever wondered why that was?" he questioned, his tone the same he usually used when he tried to coax her into reaching her own conclusions.
Sakura, however, was far from calm enough for that to work. "I don't give a damn anymore!" she snapped, tears slipping from her eyes. "I love him. I would do anything for him, regardless of his stupid reasons." Snapping the box shut and throwing it spitefully on the counter, she ran her hands forcefully through her hair, pulling on it hard. "God, I'm so sorry," she sobbed, squeezing her eyes shut. "I'm so sorry I dragged you into this whole mess. I swear I didn't mean to hurt you. I swear I tried to forget him. I swear I thought I almost did." She shook her head. "I had no right…"
"You had the right to make a life for yourself," he soothed, closing the distance between them. He grabbed her wrists and gently pulled them away from her hair, holding her hands into his own, coaxing her to look up at him. "You had the right to want that."
"Forgive me," she whimpered.
"I have nothing to forgive you for," he assured her as he cupped her face within his hands, lavender eyes boring into teary emerald orbs. "He is lucky to have you. And maybe he doesn't deserve you… but again, maybe he does. Regardless, I hope you do manage to find happiness."
Her eyes slid shut, another layer of hot tears escaping them along with a ragged sob, as he laid a soft, parting kiss on her forehead.
Then, faster than she could think, he was gone. The door slid shut behind him, and she was left alone. Unprotected, unloved, vulnerable and worn-out—and with her heard broken in tiny splinters once again.
When a crying Sakura burst into her flower shop later that day, Ino thought she could have killed Sasuke.
Unfortunately, she was too busy with trying to comfort her friend for the rest of the afternoon.
It was summer when he saw her again. She was sitting on a bench, in the shade of a large oak tree, twisting her long, pink hair in a graceful side braid. She was dressed in a colorful, flowery dress and white sandals, and was curiously watching the busy street in front of her, her green eyes as expressive as ever as they absorbed every sight and registered every last bit of information.
At first, he wanted to stroll past her like she was any other stranger, because, in his mind, that was how she was supposed to be labeled, but the moment he glanced at her again, his decision changed. Memories of what seemed like so long ago, memories he had tried so hard to forget, surfaced—and all he saw was red.
Apparently, that was the reason why he had stalked towards her. Deep inside, however, there was a part of him that was soothed by her approaching presence.
"Waiting for your boyfriend?" he seethed as he came to a stop in front of her, unable to help himself.
Sakura looked up at the figure towering over her. Surprise flitted across her green eyes, before disappearing under a layer of unidentifiable emotion.
For a moment, she thought about hissing right back at him, about glaring and giving him exactly as good as she got. But in the end, she was unable to do that.
She could never hate him. That was clear to her now.
"Neji and I broke up," she said, willingly offering him information that, she believed, he should have had access to a long time ago.
His eyes narrowed at the piece of information, and flashed red. "What did he do to you?" he demanded.
Sakura shook her head. Demonstrations of fierce protectiveness did not surprise her anymore, nor did they make her think he actually cared—not when they came from Sasuke. "It was me."
It was her. It was always her. After all, no one forced her to love him as much as she did.
It rained on his eighteenth birthday. Naruto, ever the faithful friend, a man who never backed down from a challenge, organized a party for him despite the weather conditions.
It turned out to be quite the surprise. Sasuke would have never thought there was more to the lunch invitation to Ichiraku's that Naruto had forced on him the day before.
And the truth was, everything about the gesture had caught him off guard, including—and especially—the sheer number of people the blond had managed to gather. Sure, it was nowhere near the monster crowd that had been present at Sakura's birthday party. But all Konoha Eleven was there, along with their old senseis, and numerous other officials that Sasuke had come in contact with since his return to the village.
People respected him now—admired him, even. But he had never expected them to genuinely care about him.
There was only one person missing—and to say that he hadn't noticed the lack of pink from the very beginning would be nothing more than a big, fat lie. Sometime in the interval of time that followed the end of his probation, he had unconsciously begun to relentlessly reach for it whenever the scenery changed.
And so, he found it hours later, after he managed to escape the clutches of a tipsy Naruto, and was taking the long route home, through the park. Sasuke was not one for socialization, no matter the occasion, so he had needed the time to wind down.
He heard her before he saw her—heard her laughter resound through the empty park. The pavement was wet, and so were the trees, but the heavy rain had stopped to a light drizzle.
The light fog and the canopy of an old oak offered him protection when she finally made an appearance, dragged forcefully behind a large dog. She was dressed in short, dark-blue jeans and a yellow sweater that fell down her shoulders and over her hands. Her white sneakers were splattered with mud, and her pink hair was tied in a sloppy, slightly wet pony-tail, the loose strands plastered to her face and neck. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips stretched into a smile, and her green eyes sparkled.
And there was nothing—absolutely nothing—that told him she had thought about him at least once that day.
Sasuke never knew he would be leaving on a mission with his ex-teammate until she made an appearance at the gates, looking as nonchalant as ever.
It immediately became clear to him that she had known about this arrangement from the very beginning, but given the fact that she was the Hokage's apprentice, that failed to surprise him. There was an underlying layer of tension affecting her demeanor, though, which told him that she wasn't entire comfortable with this arrangement, either, and a part of him was glad because of that.
Of course, had he not been so tired, then maybe the whole of him would have been glad, and he would have even celebrated it somehow.
Becoming a Jounin had been easy. Having Tsunade allow him to sign up for the ANBU exams, however, was another, totally different story. The woman was working him to the bone, giving him mission after mission to complete, paperwork after paperwork to finish, report after report to write. His only break between missions now consisted of a good night of sleep. Then the messenger would be on his doorstep again, and he would be summoned to the Hokage's office for yet another A-rank mission.
He supposed one would think she had good intentions, building up his stamina like that, but Sasuke knew better than to trust appearances—she probably took a secret delight in discovering how much he could take until he broke down. Which would not happen, because he was an Uchiha, and he had already decided he would not give her that satisfaction.
That did not mean that being on a mission with Sakura proved to be easy. Kakashi was with them, but his presence was of little consequence. There was no denying the fact that the pinkette brought back a sense of deja-vu that he would have rather avoided for the rest of his life.
Apart from that, however, he had to admit that he was not as distracted as he had expected to be. He found that she was quieter now, more focused, and that made her more reliable.
He refused to admit that he was bothered by the fact that all of her smiles were now reserved for Kakashi.
They camped at nightfall, in a small clearing they had deemed appropriate. Food was served and sleeping bags were unrolled, but he was more absent to everything. Maybe he was the one to blame, but his thoughts kept shifting to the sleeping bag and how warm and comfortable it would feel to burrow himself under the covers.
"You two should get some sleep," Kakashi stated as he stood up from the log he had been previously sitting on, one of his hands already reaching for the little orange book he always kept stored inside his pocket. "I'll take the first shift."
"I'll take the second," Sakura chirped before the Uchiha could have a say. She turned to look at him then, and maybe it was his impression, or the way the fire reflected in her eyes, but her gaze seemed warmer. "I'll wake you up."
He nodded, and the last thing he remembered after that, was the way the pillow felt underneath his head.
It was only when he awoke with the early morning sun shining in his eyes that Sasuke realized that something was wrong. Neither Kakashi nor Sakura were around, but the fire was still burning slowly, and their sleeping bags were still unrolled. He knew better than to believe something had happened to them, because he would have woken up the moment he sensed danger. But then, what had happened?
The answer was presented to him when Sakura came strolling back into the camp.
His eyes narrowed.
"Oh, hey," she greeted, "You're up. Kakashi filled the water canteens for us, so—"
"I didn't need you to take my shift," he snapped, cutting her off.
Her voice was surprisingly calm and serene when she answered, her head only titling slightly to give him a sideward glance as she crouched down to pack up her makeshift bed. "Then you should have woken up and stopped me."
Rain pelted down in sheets when Sasuke stumbled out of the woods that evening, chakra depleted and out of breath.
"Sakura!" he roared, barely able to hear his own voice due to the thundering storm.
When had everything taken a turn for the worse? he wondered, even now. He struggled to make out an image that should have been crystal clear in his sharp memory.
They were ambushed. They held their own. Then enforcements came. They were separated from one another, the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen on a mission, and although he knew Kakashi would be alright, he couldn't say the same thing about his other teammate.
She had grown, but she was still Sakura, and there was an instinct inside of him—a primal instinct that never really went away—that told him that he was the one who had to protect her.
His heart stopped when he finally laid eyes on her still form.
She was lying on the ground, on her stomach. Her temple was pressed to the wet, muddled soil, and her shoulders were hunched, one bloody forearm next to her face, motionless. Her pink hair was soaked, strands clinging to her face, like her ripped, rumpled clothes clung to her body. And there was blood, there was a pool of blood surrounding her—blood that not even the heavy rain managed to wash away.
For a long while, he stood frozen in place. "No," he whispered unknowingly. His brain was screaming at him to move, to do something, to save her. But his body would not respond to its commands.
His fingers flexed. And then he was kneeling beside her, trembling hands hovering over her head. Rain continued to fall down heavily, hitting his body with force, sliding down his forehead, to his neck, to his bare arms, splashing on the ground, trailing over her cold skin, mixing with the red soil beneath her motionless body.
Letting his forearm support his weight, he lied down next to her, wrapping an arm around her waist. He hovered over her in a protective manner, leaning his torso over her small body, as though wanting to shield her away from the entire world. But to what use, when he hadn't been there for her when she had truly needed him?
"No, you can't leave me," he said, burying his face into the crook of her neck. "You can't do this to me, Sakura. You said—" he choked. There was so much blood—so much blood that it made him sick. He could close his eyes, but then he would feel its scent—feel the motionless body against him. He couldn't even tell where she was bleeding, where she was hurt the most. "You said you would always be here. I can't lose you, too. Please…"
He sat up, tugging her into his lap, cradling her head gently to his chest as he bent over her. Her arm fell limply to the side, and her body felt heavy against his.
"Please…" he begged, burying his face into her wet hair, his eyes burning unfamiliarly.
Naruto was right. That was the only thing chanting through his head as he brought her closer and held her tightly, tears sliding down his face, mixing with the rain. He was right. He felt horrible. He felt as though the entire world, everything he had tried so hard to build, was tumbling down to his feet once again, and there was nothing—absolutely nothing—he could do to stop it.
Then a small hand laid trembling over his forearm.
His eyes widened, and there was a sharp intake of breath from his part, but other than that, his reactions were limited. He continued to hold her against him for fear that he was imagining things, that he wanted her to be alive so badly that his mind was playing cruel tricks on him. He continued to hold her for fear that if his grip loosened, she would be taken away from him—forever.
"S-Sasuke-kun," she rasped.
A ragged sob escaped his lips as he realized that this was real, that she was fine, that she was breathing—and he held her even tighter.
"It's… it's okay. I managed to heal myself."
He never did let go until Kakashi found them.
The next thing Sakura remembered about that mission was waking up in the hospital, back home, with a fresh bouquet of cherry blossoms on the nightstand beside her, a dripping IV in her arm, and a sleeping Naruto in a chair next to her bed.
Her memory was fuzzy, details she could not remember were nagging at her, and there was a nasty wound in her abdomen that hurt every time she attempted to move.
It took almost a month for her to heal completely, time in which Sakura was given orders to keep away from missions and hospital work.
With nothing else to do, the pinkette busied herself with helping both her mentor and her good friend, Shizune, with paperwork. She spent time with her friends, caught up with the girls, rekindled her weakened bond with Naruto, and enjoyed the little life pleasures she had overlooked for so long.
She never once saw the Uchiha in that time. Tsunade was keeping him busy, and rumor had it that he would soon be taking the ANBU exams, so she figured that he was either training in his free time, or had nothing to say to her.
After a while, she came to believe that every word she remembered so hazily being said had been nothing more than a simple dream.
But when she came back home one day with a shopping bag in one hand and a chocolate smoothie in the other, her faithful pet was gone, and in its place, there lay a note on her coffee table.
A long overdue Thank You was written on the white paper in neat, flawless script.
As soon as the words registered into her mind, she broke into a smile—a true, genuine smile. His smile.
She flipped it over in her hands, and her eyes began to twinkle with true happiness in what seemed like ages.
6:00 PM. Be there.
A/N: Visit my blog to find a direct link to all of Sakura's outfits, together with inspiration, rambles, and make-up.
And now, review, please!