don't touch my hand and call it love
you said it was over, and then cried and cried; you were gone before i said goodbye.

12.


There is nothing inadequate about the beds this inn provides, but despite that, Sasuke finds it difficult to sleep when he can hear Sakura's steady breaths from across the room.

What has gotten into him…?

Sasuke is more angry at himself than anything. Memory loss or not, he knows better than to just act based on his feelings—but that's exactly what he's been doing for a while now, and it gives him a new freedom that he never thought he'd get to experience. He hates what it's doing to him; like running down a steep slope, he just goes faster and faster until he can't stop, and sooner or later, he is going to crash and there are going to be huge repercussions.

Sakura is infuriating. Sasuke has all of these memories of her confessing his love for him, showing him affection, peeling him apples and making him lunch—it's almost as though the present Sakura is a completely different person from who she was in the past. Sasuke can't stand that she's not compliant anymore.

(But it's also proof of how much she's grown over the years, and how she didn't need him at all to do so. She's learned to live and be happy without him, and that just makes her radiant.)

Not being able to remember even a whisper of how he killed Itachi is frustrating. Sometimes, bits and pieces of his past leaks through into his mind—if he tries really hard, he can remember Naruto's loud voice. Sasuke snorts, thinking of how Naruto used to always use shadow clones, as though quantity will beat quality—and then his smile freezes and he wonders how he knows that in the first place.

If he can remember bits and pieces of Naruto, why can't he do the same for Itachi? Naruto is a blip in Sasuke's life; in the weeks he's known him, he's learned that Naruto is nothing more than your average shinobi, special only because he's the Kyuubi's vessel. Why would Sasuke have befriended him in the past? What is so outstanding about him?

Sakura, on the other hand—she is absolutely extraordinary. It disgruntles Sasuke to even think so, but it's true. To be skilled in both the art of healing and the art of destruction is already something Sasuke himself isn't able to achieve—not to mention her resilience against anything that comes her way. Sasuke can see why so many people like her.

What is he supposed to do now? Logically, he knows that he should be focusing on their current mission, and also on regaining his memory. There is no time for feelings or love—there's no room, no space left in his already blackened and shriveled heart for anything as hopeful as that.

And yet he still hopes. Like a tiny glimmer in the back of his mind, it stays there like a thorn in his side.

He wants her. He wants Sakura to be with him—her smile, her singsong voice, her positive personality—he knows this kind of desire can—will—destroy him eventually, but that is forgotten when he thinks about the feel of Sakura's lips sliding against his own. He touches his mouth, almost able to feel the residue warmth.

Why won't she just accept him?

It comes to no surprise to Sakura that the next morning is filled with tense silence.

What frustrates her the most is Sasuke's ability to completely shut down. As they have breakfast at the inn, Sasuke eats his food as if he didn't just kiss her last night, and she didn't just dislocate his jaw right afterwards.

What is he thinking? What is he feeling?

He catches Sakura staring at him, and he raises his eyebrow over his cup of tea. Clearing her throat, she looks away.

They eat in silence for several more minutes, before Sasuke says, "Tell me about Naruto."

Sakura's food stops partway to her mouth, and she puts her chopsticks down. "Why?"

Sasuke's eyes are blank. "You tell me why."

She spends several seconds in quiet thought, wondering what to say. Where does she even begin with Naruto? How can words even describe how extraordinary he is?

"You know he's the Kyuubi's vessel, right?" Sasuke nods. "Well, the villagers always had an attitude towards him as a kid and no one bothered to give him the time of day…and even I hated him at first, you know? But…" Sakura laughs softly to herself. "But he never gives up no matter how many people step all over him, and he eats so much ramen it makes me sick sometimes, and he always forgets to check the expiry date on milk cartons, and he's always thinking of others and training for hours on end to be able to keep Konoha safe, and…" Her eyes start watering, and she needs to take a breath before continue. "And he never loses faith in people. Especially you, Sasuke-kun—he never lost faith in you."

It's a moment before Sasuke answers, and when he does, it's: "Not all of those points sound like very appealing characteristics in a person."

Sakura laughs. "It's true. He's gross sometimes. And he's an idiot. But I love him because I can always count on him, you know? He's stupid enough to always be there for me, even when everyone else has escaped while they can."

Sasuke stares into his tea. "I think I know what that's like."

She smiles. "You should. Naruto has never seen you as anything less than a brother."

"A brother who, on several occasions, has betrayed his trust, threatened his life, and left his home?"

"Yeah." Sakura is about to laugh, but then stops. "Wait. How do you know that?"

"Sometimes I remember," Sasuke says. "Not solid memories, but bits and pieces of things. I have a notion of how things used to be, or how they should have been—just hunches, nothing I'm ever sure about. But how you describe Naruto is exactly how I think I might remember him to be."

Sakura thinks it's strange that Sasuke can remember fragments of Naruto when Tsunade confirmed that the jutsu in Sasuke's mind is infallible. "Well, that's good," she says with a smile. "I'm glad you have at least an inkling of Naruto in your mind. He'll be overjoyed to hear about it."

He scoffs. "An extra bowl of ramen has him overjoyed."

Her smile softens, muted by both the sadness of the situation and the fondness she has for Naruto. "Yeah, it does."

Regardless of the reason why tiny fragments of Naruto are in Sasuke's memory, Sakura is glad. Sasuke sees that clearly on her face, and he scoffs and looks away.

Her smile just gets bigger.

Back in Konoha, Naruto heaves a mighty sneeze that has Hinata squeaking and dropping her scroll.

"A-Are you okay, Naruto-kun?" she cautions as he rubs his nose, sniffing.

"Yeah," he replies. "It must be winter. The weather's finally getting to me."

Hinata laughs, a little nervously, and retrieves her fallen scroll. She continues to read it as she was before Naruto's momentous sneeze of the century, and Naruto returns to napping in the grass beside her. (He's long since discovered that he can't do anything productive when he's around her; he gets too distracted staring at her.)

After several moments, he cracks open an eye at her. Her eyes are focused intently on the scroll, the autumn breeze blowing through her hair. He's always known that Hinata's beautiful, but—man, she's just freaking gorgeous.

It's been several months since they've started dating, but they've kept it on the down low for Hinata's sake. That, and things have been so hectic since Sasuke returned that Naruto hasn't even been able to spend much time with her anyway. This is the first time they've been alone in two weeks; she's just recently returned from a reconnaissance mission, and he's finally had enough of getting his ass kicked by Sai during training to give it a rest for a few days.

When Hinata realizes he's staring at her, a faint blush rises to her cheeks. "Is something the matter?"

He shakes his head, smiling lazily at her. "Nope."

She rolls up the scroll and places it beside her. "You never did tell me about Sasuke."

At this, Naruto's eyes open fully to look at her. "Why do I have to tell you about Sasuke?"

Hinata's expression is knowing. "Because you spend a lot of time thinking about Sasuke, but the only person you can really talk to about him is Sakura. I don't think you've been comfortable with telling her anything you've been feeling lately, though—right?" She takes his lack of answer as an affirmative. "I know I'm not Sakura, but please don't forget that I'm here, too."

It takes a few moments for her words to sink in, but when they do, Naruto grins and sits up, pulling Hinata into an abrupt kiss. She squeaks in surprise against his mouth, and his smile just widens against her lips.

When he pulls away, she asks, breathless, "What was that for?"

"I don't know," he replies happily. "I just felt like it." Even if Sasuke never remembers him, maybe—just maybe, Naruto thinks—things will still be okay. As long as Hinata is still here.

His girlfriend smiles at him, widely. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He sighs, and settles himself back on the grass, his head in her lap. Her fingers absently play with his hair. "There's nothing much to talk about," he admits. "Sasuke doesn't remember me, cue angst. Sasuke remembers Sakura-chan, and is even trying to win her over, cue resentment."

"You don't think it's fair, but you don't think it's anyone's fault," Hinata supplies. "Talking to Sakura about these feelings will just make her feel guilty, and you don't want that. Right?"

Naruto nods.

Smiling gently down at him, Hinata says, "I think you just have to do what you do best."

"And what's that?" He nudges his head at her hand when her fingers come to a stop in his hair, and she laughs, resuming the petting.

"Stay resilient. You're in on the investigation on Sasuke's memory loss, right? Just do your best with that, and focus on the positive things. You're the one who taught me that, after all."

Logically, even though Naruto knows that this conversation with Hinata doesn't actually help anything, he still feels much more at ease. He closes his eyes, enjoying the feeling of her fingers in his hair. "You know what, Hinata-chan?"

"What?"

He's overcome with the urge to kiss her again, but decides against it. "You're the best."

They fall silent again, both of them absorbed in their own thoughts, before a large gust of wind and a swirl of leaves has a messenger at their feet. "Naruto," he says, "Hokage-sama has called for you."

"What for?" he grouses, grumpy that he's being pulled away when this is the first time he's seen Hinata in ages.

"You know I don't know that."

Naruto sighs and sits up, running a hand through his hair. "Sorry, Hinata-chan. I have to go."

"Don't worry about it." His girlfriend smiles, and she plucks a blade of grass from his shoulder. "I'll see you later?"

"Yeah." He leans in and pecks her once. "See you."

He leaves her reading her scroll in the field, feeling a little bit sour that he has to do so. Being a shinobi sucks sometimes, mostly because work pulls him away from all of the people he never wants to pull away from. And also because people die. And also because best friends desert him and turn against his village and then return out of the blue but conveniently forget everything about him.

Naruto sighs, wistfully. Maybe, once he's Hokage, this will all finally be worth it.

He walks into Tsunade's office without even knocking. She glares at him, but only briefly, before tossing a scroll at him. He catches it deftly and unties it.

Neji and Shikamaru are reading their own copies of the same scroll; Shikamaru leaning casually against the wall, and Neji standing straight as a pole, as usual. Naruto skims over the mission, but his interest starts to pique when he notices something.

"Isn't this the place Sakura and Sasuke went for their mission not too long ago?" Shikamaru says, voicing Naruto's thoughts.

"Yeah." Tsunade pauses, before sighing. "I was going to wait for Kakashi to arrive before I started explaining things, but I suppose that means we can be here all day. Basically—" She's interrupted by a puff of smoke. "You're late," she accuses Kakashi, who greets her with a crinkle-eyed smiled.

"Some pretty girls asked me for directions on my way here."

"Go to hell." The Hokage clears her throat, and continues. "Sasuke and Sakura were dispatched on a reconnaissance mission earlier this week. They've contacted me since then and informed me on the situation; Konoha will be in danger if enemy forces grow too big, which is why I've decided to preemptively strike. And I'm sending you four not only because you have the abilities of two ANBU platoons combined, but also because you might gain information pertinent to your other mission."

"So basically," Neji clarifies, "there is a small but quickly growing organization that, for unknown reasons, wants to attack our village? And, given less than a month, will be able to?"

"Yes."

The hints of a smirk tug at Neji's lips, and Naruto scowls. What a creepy guy. "Understood."

"Collect as much information as possible before getting rid of the enemy. But of course, the most important thing…" Tsunade trails off, because she says this every time she assigns a mission, and they all know how that sentence ends.

Come back alive.

It is nearing lunch when Yuko appears out of nowhere in a puff of smoke, almost causing Sakura to squeak in surprise. The snake casts her a look, and Sakura has a hunch it's one of judgement.

"Hokage-sama has sent a team to back you up," she hisses softly at Sasuke, who holds his arm out to her. She crawls into his palm and then twists up his arm, finding a comfortable spot around his neck like a tiny, reptilian scarf. "Until then, keep an eye on things, and don't engage in any combat if you don't have to."

"One team?" Sakura echoes. "ANBU level, right?"

"She said they won't disappoint."

One ANBU platoon, along with her and Sasuke, should be enough for an ambush. Thinking logically, Sakura knows this—but she's still paranoid and afraid because this is her home at stake. What if something goes wrong? What if there's still a factor that they don't know about?

Briefly, Sakura closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

"When will they be here?" she asks Yuko when she opens her eyes again.

"Sometime tomorrow."

One day. They can handle one day. Sasuke pats the snake on the head with the pad of his finger before it puffs out of existence, leaving them alone once more.

"You're shaking," he points out, and she clenches her hands into fists to will herself to stop being afraid.

"You're not," she counters, and somehow her statement weighs much heavier.

"Even if Hokage-sama didn't send reinforcements, the two of us can most likely handle the ambush alone. I killed Deidara and Itachi. You killed Sasori. We're more than formidable." Sasuke says this impassively, as if it's a fact—and although it is, Sakura can't help but glow a little. Yes. She is indeed a little more than formidable.

"Do you want to train with me?" she asks. "I'm going to be restless until the others arrive tomorrow, and I want to stay sharp."

Sasuke shrugs. "Sure."

They finish their lunch in silence and walk together through the village and out the main gates. Their weapons pouches are strapped to their legs underneath their civilian clothes like they always are; right now, they look like nothing more than two people having a stroll outside of the village. Sakura almost wishes that they're nothing more than that.

"Are you okay?" she asks, keeping her eyes firmly on the dirt road. "You haven't spoken too much about…Itachi, since that day." The day you burned the world down. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"You're a medic, Sakura," Sasuke replies curtly. "Not a second rate psychiatrist."

"I'm also your friend," she points out, with less affection than she truly feels.

"Why is that, actually?" His question throws her off guard, and she glances over at him in surprise. "As far as I'm concerned, I've never treated you the way a friend should be treated. Why are you still here?"

Sakura tries to find the words to explain it—how she believes beyond everything he's said and done that there is truly someone in there worth seeing. Beyond that harsh exterior is someone who needs people with him no matter how much he pushes them away—because she's sure that somewhere inside Sasuke, there is still that terrified seven-year-old boy who collapsed in front of the corpses of his parents, unable to stop his tears.

"Because you need someone," she finally says. "And until you're able to remember Naruto, I guess I have to shoulder all of that responsibility myself."

Sasuke scoffs. "Has no one told you that you're too emotional?"

"Of course. Shinobi rule number twenty-five, right? A shinobi must not show emotions in any situation, and prioritize the mission at all times." She smiles wryly, remembering the time she cried over his body, thinking he was dead. "I was the worst at that. Still am, actually. Don't you think it's ironic, Sasuke-kun? That shinobi can also be medics. I am the biggest juxtaposition to exist."

They leave the village and follow the road. When they arrived here not too long ago, they passed a large, open field, suitable for training in. It's a cloudy afternoon; the autumn wind is even chillier like this.

"What made you want to be a shinobi?" Sasuke asks.

For a moment, Sakura wonders if she should answer. She's only ever told this to Ino and Naruto—and Iruka too, back when she was still in the academy. "My aunt and uncle were killed in the last war," she says quietly. "Back then, kunoichi were still scarce, never mind medics. I just wanted to protect people—no one deserves to feel the way I felt back then." She remembers tears, she remembers helplessness—and anger and betrayal and the feeling that the world is closing in on her and suffocating her.

Sasuke doesn't reply, but she supposes he doesn't have to. He understands what she means, more than anyone else. Sakura supposes that's the good thing about him—she never has to worry about him talking too much when she doesn't want him to.

They reach the field ten minutes later, the tall grass prickly against her ankles. Sakura strips off her civilian yukata wordlessly, her skin tight shinobi clothing underneath; she always wears it just in case something unexpected happens. When she turns back to face Sasuke, he's done the same—he's wearing a black mesh shirt and loose fitting pants. He already has his katana in his hand and is crouched in a defensive stance.

Unsure of how this training session could potentially end (both excited and afraid), Sakura shoots forward, her fist already glowing with chakra.

She barely misses the fireballs shooting past her, so hot on her skin that she might actually suffer from burns. She does several flips on the ground, grass stabbing into her palms, before landing a safe distance away from Sasuke, who's predicting her next move.

It's clear that he does not intend to go easy on her just because he has feelings for her. For the past hour, they've been training relentlessly, not even stopping to catch their breath or for a drink of water. Sasuke truly lives up to his reputation; she's barely hanging on, sometimes on the verge of losing their spar altogether.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a thing or two up her sleeves. Her poisons are sitting patiently in the pack strapped around her waist—she doesn't intend to use them since he might actually die if she doesn't heal him quick enough, but they're always there as a last resort. There are some fissures in the ground from her fearsome chakra control, but she hasn't done any real damage yet; other than being sweaty and dirty with a few scratches here and there, Sasuke is unscathed.

But not for long.

She charges forward with her fist bared like she has several times before, all of which she has missed. Her fist is green with her chakra, almost greener than her eyes—eyes that watch Sasuke's movements carefully. She feints to the left—he leaps to the right. In the last moment, she propels herself to the right as well; her fist unravels in an attempt to reach for him, but only her fingertips brush his arm.

He lands several feet away, almost looking disappointed at her lack of strategy. Sakura waits.

It only takes two heartbeats for Sasuke's eyes to widen.

In the last moment before her fingers touched him, she remolded her chakra to something much more precise, doing it so quickly that he couldn't possibly have caught it even with his Sharingan unless he was paying close attention. In that moment, her chakra became an extension of her fingers, cutting not flesh, but nerves.

She's just rendered his right arm useless.

"Now you can't form your stupid jutsu anymore," she huffs, returning to a standing position and brushing her hands off. "Those were kind of annoying." Sasuke looks disgruntled, but impressed.

"Fine. But I can do more than just jutsu."

And they're at it again.

Sparring with Sasuke is exhilarating, breathtaking—she's never truly seen him fight before, so to watch him move with such grace, even with a limp arm, is simply extraordinary. It's a shame that she has to concentrate on not getting killed, because otherwise, she would spend every available moment analyzing his movements and battle tactics.

They continue until Sakura is sure her legs will give out from beneath her. Every muscle is screaming and burning, but Sasuke isn't much better. He's on the last of his chakra reserves, and one of his kidneys is failing; he may not look too roughed up, but all of his injuries are internal and much more severe than external injuries.

(So even when he finally holds a kunai to her throat, both of them panting heavily, she can't help but grin with pride. Because she put up a fight. She made him struggle.)

"Okay," she finally concedes, holding up her arms in surrender. "You win."

Sasuke pulls away and pockets his kunai. He's panting. She flops onto the grass, the air chilly on her damp skin. She feels good. She feels refreshed.

He sits down beside her, and after a moment of brief hesitation, he asks, "Can you please heal me?"

She glances at him. "Did you just say please?"

"…Yes."

She smiles, widely, and sits up. Her chakra levels are already too low for her liking, but he said please. "Okay." They shift so she has better access to him, and her hands begin glowing green. "Let me fix your kidney first, or you might actually die. Can you lay down for me?" He flops to the ground, a little gracelessly, because he still has no control over one of his arms, and she does her best to stifle her giggles.

She pushes up his mesh shirt (most likely unwearable now as it has more tears in it than it has holes) and feels his left side. Sasuke winces. "It hurts there?"

"Yeah."

Sakura revives his kidney before having him sit up and reconnecting the nerves in his arm. "It'll be a few hours before it'll return to full function though, so don't push yourself."

"This is your fault in the first place," he mutters, giving his arm a few experimental movements.

"Okay," she says, "and who's the one who gave me these?" She points to her leg, which is swelling with ugly red blisters thanks to second degree burns. She was initially going to heal it, but she isn't sure if she has enough chakra for it now. It goes pretty deep, and there's a lot of damaged tissue to fix.

He shrugs. "We laid down no rules. Everything was fair game."

"Yeah," she says, glancing pointedly at his arm. "Everything was fair game. Stop complaining like you're some civilian."

"If I continue complaining, will you give me special treatment?"

Sakura raises her eyebrow at Sasuke's creepily insinuative comments. Is he flirting with her? "No." He turns away, a bit of a pout sitting on his lips. She gapes.

It takes her several moments to recover before she clears her throat and pats his shoulder. "I've healed all the major injuries. The rest will get better on its own. Let's go back to the village and get some rest—the others will be here tomorrow." It takes her a moment to get to her feet, and when she does, she's wobbly; it's hard to notice anything but the painful burn all over her leg.

Sasuke holds her by her shoulders to keep her steady. "Why don't you heal yourself?"

She shakes her head. "Not enough chakra. I'll do it tomorrow morning." She smiles ironically at him. "I've always been good at conserving my chakra and using it in moderation, but I guess I had to go all out on you."

"As it should be," he says, vainly.

(But he holds her, keeps her steady and helps her walk all the way back to the village.)

Shikamaru used to hate being bothered when at home, but now, he isn't so sure anymore.

It's Ino who's at his door, a bottle of wine in her hands. He raises an eyebrow in question, opening the door wider to let her in. "Mission tomorrow, right?" she says, heading straight towards his kitchen and grabbing two wine glasses. She has come over with a bottle of wine so many times that she knows where he stores his wine glasses better than he does.

"Yeah. Backing Sakura and Sasuke up."

"Will it be hard?"

"Maybe. I don't know. I'm not the captain this time around so I haven't thought much about it." They settle on the couch like they always do, watching the television, but not really seeing.

"You shouldn't stop thinking, you know," Ino tuts, handing him his glass of wine. "It defines you."

He swirls the dark liquid in the glass, thinking about how he'd rather be having a smoke instead. "Yeah, well. Not like it's done me much good."

Ino is quiet after that, just drinking her wine. Shikamaru knows why she comes over, even if it's under the pretense of babbling about her life or talking about boys or Sakura or the flower shop. She comes because she's worried—because they're all worried—but Shikamaru doesn't know how to ease their hearts. It's been years, and he still doesn't know how to pretend he's okay.

"Sakura and Sasuke," she says after several minutes of silence, refilling her glass. "Do you think they'll work out?"

"Do you want them to?" Shikamaru asks, rhetorically, because he already knows the answer.

"I don't know," she answers anyway. "I want whatever is best for Sakura."

"I don't think what's best for her is an either-or outcome of whether or not she works things out with Sasuke," he says, finally taking a drink of his wine. It burns all the way down to his stomach. "I think it's how she sees it."

"What do you mean?"

He places his glass on the coffee table because he doesn't foresee himself drinking any more. (He's never been much of a drinker, and yet Ino always insists with the alcohol.) "The way I see it, there are four ways this could happen." He holds up one finger. "The first is that she gives in to her feelings and to Sasuke, but she spends an eternity feeling afraid and guilty because of it." He holds up another finger. "The second is she resists her feelings, and spends an alternate eternity wondering about the what-ifs and could-have-beens. In both of these options, she loses."

"Okay," Ino says, nodding slowly. "Those are the only options I've ever thought of. What are the other two?"

"Number three." A third finger. "Sakura doesn't give in to her feelings, but accepts them. She accepts Sasuke and forgives herself for it. Or number four: she moves on, she doesn't regret, and she finds happiness elsewhere." Shikamaru would much rather Sakura come to one of these conclusions. "In these two outcomes, she wins."

Ino snuggles more into the cushions, cradling her glass of wine in her hands. "How come you can see a victory for Sakura, but not for yourself?"

It's not that he can't see. Shikamaru can see perfectly well. A world where he wins is a world where he'll stop blaming himself for Asuma's death. A world where he wins is one where he's able to reconcile with the monsters that live in his mind. But seeing and doing are completely different things—it's not a matter of just getting off his ass and doing it. You can't change your feelings just because you have the determination to.

"There are no victories for me," he tells her. "No matter what I do, I'm destined to lose."

"No," she says, voice laced with more heartbreak than he thinks is fair. "You can win, Shikamaru. You just have to let us help you."

But there's no helping him, is there? He's on his own. He'll always be on his own.

"Like you said, I have a mission tomorrow." He stands from the couch and turns off the television. He didn't even notice that the next program had started. "I should turn in for the night."

Ino is reluctant, but she gets up anyway. Over the years, she's said everything that she's wanted to say and could possibly say—there are no more words, no more empty comforts to whisper in his ear. So she just pulls him into a long hug, so tight it's almost suffocating. "Come back safe," she says, like she always does when he leaves for a mission.

He hugs her back halfheartedly, one arm wrapping loosely around her waist. "Yeah. Protect the village while I'm gone."

"That goes without saying." She pulls away and smiles at him, and for a moment, he feels a surge of warmth.

It's the small victories, he supposes.

It's quiet between Sasuke and Sakura for the rest of the evening. Sasuke buys dinner and they eat in the privacy of their room, with no one to please. Sakura is resting on her bed, recuperating her energy and gingerly keeping her injured leg from doing anything.

For a while, Sakura thinks that Sasuke might try something on her now, especially because she's in a weaker position—but never once does he loom too close, or ask any uncomfortable questions. All there is tonight is a silence that has her breathing easy; a type of silence that, she realizes, is difficult to come across with Sasuke. So rarely does she ever feel completely at ease when she's with him.

What is he thinking about right now? Is he thinking anything at all? (She hopes he isn't. She hopes he's resting his mind in addition to his body; it's a big day tomorrow. Right now is the calm before the storm.)

The idea of the approaching day no longer terrifies Sakura, but she's still anxious. Their actions will determine the future of her home, and that doesn't sit well with her. What if they fail? What if, by some sick stroke of luck, the enemy stands victorious? That thought is so foreboding that it has shivers running up Sakura's spine.

She stares down at her leg, red and swelling and stinging. It occurs her that she has some ointment in her pack that can ease the pain for the time being. She glances at where her pack is, on the table across the room—heaves a sigh, and slowly gets off the bed and limps over.

Sasuke exits the bathroom in that moment, wearing casual clothes and toweling his hair dry. He's silent as he watches her rummage through her pack, supporting her weight on her good leg. "Do you need help?" he offers, with hesitation.

"No," she replies distractedly, pushing through the vials of poisons and common antidotes, each of them labeled clearly and carefully. "Just looking for something…" He brushes past her to his own bed, and for a moment, she catches a whiff of his scent, mixed with soap and shampoo. Unbeknownst to herself, she breathes him in and savors him.

She jolts herself out of her reverie when her fingers finally grasp the small container of ointment at the very bottom of her pack. A sigh escapes her lips as she hobbles back to her bed. She's exhausted. Her muscles ache, and it's only going to hurt more later on.

"Are you sure you don't need help?"

"I'm not a damsel in distress, Sasuke-kun. I can tend to my own injuries just fine."

"It's just," Sasuke sounds unsure, "I just. Want to do what I can."

Sakura blinks, and after a moment, smiles. "Thanks. But I really am okay—you don't have to worry about me. You've never worried before."

"I'm different from I was back then."

You are, she thinks sadly, and she hates herself for being more upset with this change than she is happy about it. This Sasuke cares about her so much more, and it's painfully ironic that it takes a memory wipe for that to happen.

She can see that he's still struggling with this change. All of his actions are overlapped with uncertainty, as if he doesn't remember what it's like to be concerned about someone, what to do when he wants to help someone. How is one supposed to react to affection? How does one let a person know that she is loved?

Sasuke, she thinks, is the saddest person she knows, and he doesn't even know how sad he is. He is so sad and she's hopelessly in love with him.

"If you want to be helpful," she says quietly, "you can start by making amends. Apologize to those you've hurt in the past. Do your best to remember Naruto and spend your lost days with him. That's the only thing you can do right now." Sasuke doesn't answer, but he looks deep in thought. "You can't just take and take—it's about time you started giving back."

"Okay," he finally says. "I will do that once we return. I'm…" He hesitates. "I'm sorry for trying to push you into something you didn't want."

"Oh," she says with surprise. "It's okay. Just understand when no means no." It's not that she doesn't want it—of course she wants it—but she supposes Sasuke doesn't know that. And maybe it's better that way—maybe it'll be easier to pretend that way.

As she's applying ointment to her burn, Sasuke turns off his bedside lamp and lies down on his pillow. "I'm sleeping. You should sleep soon too."

"Yeah. I will." She stares at her leg in the dim light, thinking that her entire life is just a severe burn inflicted by Sasuke that she's constantly trying to recover from. Maybe she'll heal one day, but the scars are never going to go away.

It's not long later that she turns off her light and goes to sleep as well, on top of her covers because she can't stand anything touching her sensitive skin.

It's been a long day. It'll be an even longer day tomorrow.

She's hardly able to jolt out of her own slumber before a kunai strikes down, stabbing the mattress where her shoulder used to be.

"Sasuke-kun!"

"I know!" Sasuke is already on his feet, his katana unsheathed. He's facing two masked shinobi, the third who was very close to stabbing Sakura.

It takes a moment for it to click. We're being ambushed?

She has no time to think before she springs to her feet, avoiding the enemy's next attack. Pain shoots up her leg, and she swears, loudly. She's forgotten about that.

Her weapons pouch is on the table across the room, along with the rest of her supplies. She turns to her enemy; he's several feet taller than her, with broad shoulders and a very large build. Sakura can only see the outline of him in the dark, but it's good enough; she charges her fist with chakra (still low, still not quite enough), but before she gets a chance to punch, he grabs both her arms and spins her, holding them tight behind her back. She redirects her chakra flow to her foot instead, but he delivers a swift kick to her injured leg. To keep in her scream, she nearly bites through her tongue. The metallic taste of blood in her mouth makes her slightly nauseous.

"Take it easy, will ya?" the shinobi says with a low, gravelly voice in her ear. "It's not like we want to kill you."

"Doesn't seem like a friendly visit either," she hisses, spitting out a mouthful of blood.

He chuckles. (She can still hear the clashing of metal in the room, Sasuke's swift attacks—if she concentrates, she might be able to imagine him move, the way he did earlier today.) "You guys don't exactly seem nice though, snooping around and investigating us."

Dammit. Dammit. How did it become like this? She was supposed to be on the winning side—she wasn't supposed to be neutralized, held down by a burly man who's probably several ranks too low to even touch her.

"Just sleep for a while, won't you?" In the moonlight, she sees the gleam of a syringe, filled with a colorless liquid. Her eyes widen and she begins to struggle, but with such low levels of chakra, an injured leg and very aching bones from the training session (a stupid idea in retrospect, a very, very stupid idea), she's unable to break free of the man's hold.

"Sasuke-kun," she croaks out weakly as the syringe pierces the skin of her neck, cold and sharp and feeling like terror and disappointment all rolled up into one. "Sasuke-kun!"

The last thing she sees is Sasuke running towards her, but being pulled back and having his arm broken as an enemy shinobi takes it and snaps it like he's made of nothing more than sheets of paper wrapped around brittle glass.


A/N: (And maybe that's really all he's made of.)

So this is me being put to the test: how well can I write, edit, and proofread while being sleep deprived and more stressed than I have been in my entire life? I've always hated it when writers used real life as the reason for not updating, but now I know it really is the reason (when being uninspired is not the case). I keep on wishing I could go back and fix so many things with this fic because the more I think about it, the less I like it. But. That may just be the exhaustion talking, who knows.

Like I've said several times before, if you think there's a way for me to improve this story, please let me know! I've lost a lot of my confidence as a writer in the past months.