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.

16.


what are you, jealous?

Sasuke stands at the door, wondering what he's doing here first thing in the morning.

He shouldn't be here. He should be doing something productive—he should be investigating the village, finding links between it and the small organization they crushed—but instead, he's in front of Sakura's place, contemplating whether or not he should ring the doorbell—

Which, clearly, isn't necessary, because the door opens of its own accord—but it's not Sakura that's doing the opening. It's Sai.

"Your chakra signature," he explains to Sasuke's questioning silence.

Of course that's how Sai knew he's here. What Sasuke wants to know is why he's here.

"Why are you here," he deadpans.

"I stayed the night," Sai answers with the same deadpan. He doesn't open the door wider to let Sasuke in. "Why are you here?"

"Visiting Sakura," he replies, stiffly. "Not to see you, obviously." And what is Sai doing, staying the night anyway? What kind of relationship does he and Sakura have? Surely not that—?

No, of course not. Sakura is his. And she wouldn't—not with this washed out comparison of him—

"Thanks for letting me in." He forcefully pushes past Sai and into Sakura's place. He hears the boiling of water in the kettle and smells coffee in the air. Sakura is sound asleep on her couch, a blanket draped over her with care.

Sai closes the front door and goes to turn off the stove, the water having reached a full boil. "I was going to let her sleep for a little longer. She's tired. Would you like coffee or tea?"

Irritation eats away at Sasuke. "Tea is fine, thanks." Sai maneuvers himself in Sakura's home as if he's been there countless of times—as if making tea and coffee has become so normal that it's routine. Since when did Sai become so close with Sakura? When did he become everything Sasuke could have been in a world where happiness was easier to come by?

Sai makes two cups of tea and one cup of coffee, putting in two spoons of sugar with familiarity. With the coffee in his hand, he walks over to Sakura and kneels down in front of her. "Sakura, wake up. You have a visitor." She groans and rolls over so her back faces him. "Sakura." No response. "You look uglier than my dead grandmother."

That has her kicking the blanket off of her, her hair a disarray. "What did you say, you asshole?"

Sai smiles, holding out the coffee to her. "Good morning."

Sakura takes the steaming mug, slightly baffled. "Morning." It takes her a moment to notice Sasuke, but when she does, she jumps to the point where she almost spills her hot drink. "Sasuke-kun! What are you doing here?"

It's a question he legitimately does not know the answer to, so he doesn't respond. Sai smiles at him, but it only looks triumphant and prideful.

Sasuke scowls. Sai wins this round.

the cat's out of the bag

Unfortunately, Ino finds out before Sakura even has the chance to tell her.

"What have I told you about being careful?" she snaps at Sasuke as she heals his arm. "I already told you that there are bone fragments that I can't fix—it's weaker than it was before. Stop overestimating yourself—your pride may be indestructible, but your body isn't!"

"Tch." Sasuke turns away. "It's because Naruto took the spar way too seriously."

"You're the one making everything a huge deal, you bastard!"

This is why men are impossible to manage, Sakura thinks irritably to herself. They're always so irrational.

She feels a tap on her shoulder, and she turns around. "Ino. What are you doing here?"

"Hokage-sama is looking for you, but…" Ino's hands are clasped behind her back, blue eyes knowing as they look at Sakura healing Sasuke. "When did you two start going out?"

Sakura and Sasuke jump apart from each other immediately. Naruto yells in surprise.

She hasn't even told anyone yet. How did Ino know?

"W-We're not going out!" she stutters. "What made you think that we are?"

Ino puts her hands on her hips and leans forward, inspecting Sakura. "Liar."

"It's true!" She turns to Sasuke, who's still sitting in the grass, massaging his arm. "Tell her, Sasuke-kun!"

"I'm not entitled to say anything," he replies, a hint of smugness in his tone.

This is why men…!

"You two are dating?" Naruto grasps Sakura by the shoulders and shakes her frantically. "When? Since when?"

"It isn't a big deal, Naruto! Calm down!"

"That's true," Ino says. "It really isn't that big of a deal. It was always going to be those two." She's beaming. "Congratulations."

Sakura smiles sheepishly. "Thanks. Just don't go around telling everyone, okay?"

"Sure, sure, whatever you say."

Naruto is still wailing when Ino treats them all to lunch to celebrate.

love grows slowly, from an ember to a wildfire

"There's too much excess chakra," she says in a steady tone, keeping her voice low. "If you connect too much tissue or regenerate too many cells, you're going to end up with a weird patch of flesh or too much scar tissue. Back off a little."

Sasuke doesn't respond, but he does as he's told. Luckily, the civilian patient hasn't noticed anything.

"Good. That's good, Sasuke-kun!" she tells him when he finally withdraws his hands, the green glow of chakra fading away. Her finger runs along what used to be a gash in the patient's thigh. "Almost perfect." Of course, this is just a shallow wound—at his skill level, he still wouldn't be able to handle internal injuries, poison extraction, or anything complicated like that. But being able to at least close wounds, messily or not, may make all the difference in a life or death situation.

When the patient has thanked them and left the room, Sasuke sits down in a chair, exhaling slowly. Sakura laughs. "Tired?"

"A little."

Although healing does not require a lot of chakra most of the time, the energy spent controlling the amount of chakra that is required is more or less equivalent to using a lot of it. Sasuke has only seen three patients, all of which only have superficial wounds, but he's already wiped out.

"Let's call it a day," she says, patting him on the shoulder. "You did good. We'll do more tomorrow."

"I can still continue."

She shakes her head. "You can't push yourself with healing the way you do with training. One slip and you could ruin someone's life or have them grow an extra limb."

"I'm not tired," Sasuke insists (haughtily) and stands to his feet (with wobbling knees). "I can still continue."

"Let's have lunch instead, shall we?" Sakura claps her hands together. "I'll get an intern to finish up our work here. You did good today, Sasuke-kun."

"But I can—"

She grabs him by the arm and drags him out the door.

(But not before she kisses him on the cheek first, still as giddy as she was on the very first day.)

you think you're finally getting it right

Tsunade is well on her way to drunk when Sasuke enters her office in the evening.

"Do you need something, Uchiha?"

"I would like you to tell me what you know about the Konoha Council."

The Hokage seems to sober up immediately. She removes her feet from her desk and sits up in her chair. "Why are you asking about it?"

"So I can have a reason to trust the village."

If he wants to investigate Konoha, how does he do it without looking suspicious? How does he do it without worrying Sakura? How does he do it without toppling over everything that he's finally begun to rebuild? Sasuke faces these questions every day, and every day he comes no closer to an answer.

Sasuke is slowly remembering that one cannot have everything. This is why he abandoned Konoha in the first place; he made sacrifices, he cut off what would slow him down, he destroyed all weaknesses. It's not that he never cared—he just made himself stop caring. Because he cannot have both—he cannot have both Itachi's blood on his hands and the continued support of those he holds dear. The world doesn't work that way.

But he still finds himself making the same mistakes as before. He's getting comfortable, he's finding happiness—even when he still wakes up angry with the emptiness of Itachi's death and the suspicion of Konoha's deceit. Sasuke is hoping again (and he hates himself for it) to have both victory and an intact heart.

(But the world would never be that kind.)

Tsunade's eyes are hard. "I know you heard things on that reconnaissance mission. Let us do the work—don't concern yourself with it."

"How do I not concern myself with something that clearly has everything to do with me?"

She leans forward, arms crossed in her desk. "Uchiha. I'm doing this for both your good and the village's. You're notorious for making rash decisions. We don't know what we're going to discover—and depending on what we find, Konoha may go through a serious reform. I don't want you to make things more difficult than they already will be."

"Then at least let me join the investigation."

There's no way anyone understands this helplessness he feels. No amnesiac would be able to explain the agony of the black hole of a memory, sucking away everything that makes you alive until all you can think about, all that you know is the fact that you don't know.

Tsunade considers this for several moments before responding. "You may not join the investigation." Sasuke stiffens. "But we will keep you updated. And I give my word that we will not keep anything from you."

He relaxes, imperceptibly. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."

"Just know that I'm not doing it for you."

It doesn't matter who she's doing it for. What matters is that she's doing it.

Results are all Sasuke's ever cared about, after all.

we're reborn, you and me

"Sasuke-kun? What are you doing? Where are you taking me?"

He's leading her through the forest areas of the village, used mainly for training and exams. He doesn't respond; only continues to walk with determined steps, at such a pace that he has Sakura jogging to keep up. Finally, he stops in front of a large fenced area, with a large bold sign that reads PRACTICE AREA #44.

Sakura grows silent, curious as to why he's bringing her here, out of all places.

"My memories of this place are very fragmented." Sasuke is staring up at the large trees, looming over them with eerie silence. This is the place, Sakura realizes, where everything changed. Where all of their fates turned a different direction.

"I'll be honest, there's nothing too great to remember," she says, even though it's not entirely true. It's done some good to her—and maybe for them, too.

"Isn't this where you finally got rid of all of that long hair?"

"Yeah. And it's also where…" Where Orochimaru found us. It's where you turned into such a monster that even I, with all of my faith and devotion and love for you, was shaking in my skin.

"I remember that bit." Sasuke's voice is wry. "Chuunin exams are in three man-teams, right? Was Naruto our third teammate?"

"Yeah. We wouldn't have gotten out of there alive if it weren't for him."

"Tch. I guess I owe him a favor."

Sasuke owes Naruto more than just one favor, but Sakura decides not to tell him that. A moment later, Sasuke leaps into the air and over the large fences—and she follows, but not without a sigh because she's not exactly excited to fend off giant snakes and poisonous slugs and the ghosts of her past. (The ghost of who Sasuke used to be.)

"Why are we here, Sasuke-kun?" she asks as they leap through the trees. The air is damp and musky, but cold at the same time; it feels uncomfortable and sticky on her skin.

"Because I have something to say," is his cryptic response. Why he can't say it anywhere else is absolutely beyond her.

They travel for fifteen minutes more before they land in a small clearing, surrounded by trees hundreds of years old. It takes Sakura more than a moment to recognize this specific spot—the little nook in the tree trunk, the bushes opposite from it—

("Who did this to you, Sakura?")

The words still echo in her memory, clear as day, unfamiliar as a stranger.

"I still have it," Sasuke says, turning towards her. "The cursed seal." He tilts his head and brushes away his hair to reveal his pale neck, unmarred save for the the three tomoe. That seal is the source of her nightmares, sometimes.

She reaches forward, uncertainly, but he lets her fingers touch his skin. She draws in a shallow breath before pulling away, afraid.

"I have it under control," he says, as if to appease her.

She smiles sadly. "Remember when you didn't?"

"Vaguely. You're the one…" You're the one who brought me back.

He is uncertain as he reaches out for her hand. Sasuke is still like that, she's noticed—almost as if he's afraid of her, afraid he'll break her, afraid he'll do something wrong, afraid she'll leave him. Sakura wonders if he's ever stopped being afraid of anything, even for a moment.

"What did you want to tell me?" she asks quietly, grasping his hand tightly. (She'll never let go of him. Not if she can help it.)

"That…you changed me. Even back then, before I left the village, before I lost my memories."

Sakura's heart is beating so frantically in her chest that it actually hurts. "And that is a good thing?"

"It feels like a good thing." And perhaps that is not the perfect answer, but it's good enough. Sakura swallows, biting back the tears, although she doesn't know why she wants to cry.

"Sasuke-kun—" But she doesn't get to talk, because he's pulled her in and in the next instant, their mouths are pressed together, fierce, messy, like they still don't know how but are trying so hard to get it right. It's the first time they've kissed since their mission (because Sasuke is still too hesitant, Sakura still too wary), but all of that falls away now because here, right here is where they first saw each other as they really are—that Sasuke is nothing more than a fallen angel, the shadow of an antihero, and Sakura is more than the girl on the sidelines, because she's a fighter and everyone's hopes and dreams rolled up into one. This is the place where all pretenses fall away and they're no more than just Sakura and just Sasuke—not defined by their surnames or blood, but by their bones and their feelings etched deep into them.

What do you do, when you become too small to hold all of the love that you have for a person?

"You've changed me too," she whispers against his mouth when they pull apart. "Loving you has been the biggest adventure I've ever had."

The smirk (smile?) is faint on his lips. "I'm an adventure?"

"A never-ending one, I'm afraid." He kisses her again, softly. "Mind you, it does have its ups and downs." But the important thing is this: Sasuke taught her how to be brave. He's taught her bravery in loneliness and bravery amidst other people. Sakura can withstand anything because of Sasuke.

Both of them freeze as they sense movement around them. Sakura sighs. Well, she couldn't have expected anything too romantic in the place dubbed the Forest of Death.

"Looks like we've got company," Sasuke murmurs in jest, before pulling away and tossing a kunai into the bushes.

Of course, this only angers the giant snake.

there's happiness, if you just look for it

"They're at it again?" Sakura sighs exasperatedly.

Naruto shrugs. "Apparently. That's what Kiba told me, anyway. But hey, maybe that's how socially retarded people bond or something."

"I'm a little worried. That's almost every single day this week."

"Let them do what they want. It's good that they're spending time together, isn't it?"

Since Sai returned from his most recent mission, he's been at the training grounds with Sasuke, sparring. Well, sparring is what they call it—Sakura calls it complete decimation. They've destroyed three training grounds so far; if this continues, Tsunade said that she'll have to put the two on probation.

Sakura doesn't understand the relationship Sasuke has with Sai, if it can even be called a relationship. They're constantly at each other's throats, no matter where they are, whether it's in the form of verbal fights or a full on onslaught. They're not even playful banters like the ones Naruto and Sasuke throw back and forth—it's like they literally hate each other. That makes Sakura a little sad.

There's a distant explosion, and that pulls her from her thoughts. Several birds scatter as they fly through the air. "Maybe we should check on them?" she asks Naruto anxiously.

He looks worried as well. "Yeah."

When they reach the training grounds, the place is in a state of disarray. Sasuke is standing alone, his katana in his hand. His eyes are closed in concentration.

Naruto leans in to whisper in her ear. "Do you even think Sasuke stands a chance? Sai's in Root! Sasuke's good, but he can't be that good, can he?"

"Did you forget that he killed Itachi?" she whispers back. "I'd say they're on par."

They watch for a few moments more before Sai drops down from the trees. As expected, Sakura didn't notice him at all. He's perfect at masking his chakra.

"Sakura," he greets with a smile, completely disregarding Sasuke, who was expecting an attack. "What are you doing here?" She's pulled into a one armed-hug and she grins, hugging him back.

"Just checking on you and Sasuke-kun to make sure you're not close to destroying the entire village."

"That would be counterproductive, would it not?"

"Counterproductive to what?"

"Yo, Sasuke!" Naruto waves as Sasuke walks over, sheathing his katana. His expression is hard and slightly angry. Sakura giggles. He must be frustrated over Sai. She pecks him on the cheek in greeting, but he doesn't spare her a second glance—he's too busy glaring at Sai. Rude.

"Have you guys had lunch yet?" she asks Sasuke and Sai. Both of them shake their heads. They're dirty and sweaty; they must have been sparring all morning. "Well, you're in luck today—Naruto said he'd treat us to Ichiraku!"

"What? I never said that!"

Naruto and Sai argue all the way to Ichiraku. Sakura walks behind them with Sasuke. Sasuke is quiet (probably sulking), so she asks him playfully, "So, how many times has Sai beat you?"

"None."

"Hm? Really?"

"Why do you think I'd lose to someone like him?"

"You wouldn't be moping if you won," she points out. He looks at her out of the corner of her eye when she fails to stifle her giggles. "Sorry, I can't help it."

He scoffs and turns away, very clearly having a tantrum now. She walks closer to him and reaches out when the backs of their hands brush. It takes a moment (and a little consideration on Sasuke's part) before their fingers intertwine, even if it's just loosely.

Sakura's always dreamed of this—doing the little things, slowly falling in love with Sasuke. Like it was always supposed to be. She doesn't need anything grand. She just needs to know that he's here and trying just as hard as she is.

And every day, she thinks—she's getting closer to that dream.

what is relinquishing weakness if it means letting go of you?

It still haunts her, Sasuke knows.

His home is far too cold, far too empty—and in ways, just as haunting as the Uchiha compound. Sakura notices the way Sasuke does his best to avoid going home, whether that means training until ridiculous hours of the morning or taking up Naruto's offers to do whatever it is that he wants, so she mentions it one day in passing, You know, you can always live with me if you want. I don't mind.

It takes him two weeks to show up at her doorstep with a packed bag (doing so immediately would damage his pride), but all that matters, in the end, is that he shows up.

There are pictures on most furniture surfaces, of different faces and different times. There are always some clothes lying around on the floor, and it smells of coffee every single morning. Sakura has her very essence written into this place; he walks in and she is all he sees, she is all he breathes.

(Sometimes, Sasuke wonders how he could have ever given this up. How could he have ever chosen something other than this?)

He sleeps on the couch for a week. After that, he finally gives in—accepts her subtle hints of leaving her bedroom door open at night, sleeping only on the left side of her bed—and crawls under the covers with her. Her back is facing him and she doesn't move, but her breathing is too still for her to be asleep.

Sasuke is fairly certain neither of them sleep on that first night, both of them unsure of how to slip into unconsciousness in such a quiet, intimate setting.

(The second night, though—the second night is better. She bids him goodnight and drifts off, her back still facing him. Her wonders if he should reach out and hold her—does she want that? Would she like that? He's afraid, afraid he'll do something wrong.)

The third night, and then the fourth. On the fifth night, he finally shifts; reaches out for her shoulder to pull her closer. She jolts suddenly, and her entire body tenses—he pulls back, lightening quick, so fast that he could even say he never touched her at all.

A pregnant silence hangs over them. "Sorry," she says, her voice sounding quiet because she's not facing him. "I guess I'm still paranoid."

Some shinobi take torture like it's nothing. Some others take it like it's everything.

And although Sasuke doesn't like seeing her like this, he can't imagine what kind of person she'd be if it didn't affect her.

Sakura rolls to face him, her eyes startlingly green in the moonlight. "I guess in the end, I'm still weak."

"That isn't weakness," he says. "That's human."

She smiles at him, faintly, and this time when he reaches out for her, she can see, so she doesn't flinch or shy away. She lets him brush her hair out of her eyes, lets him scooch a little closer, close enough to almost feel her warmth.

"Did you know?" she asks quietly. "I've never loved anyone other than you."

Did you know? I've never opened myself up like this to anyone other than you.

"I'm honored," he says, and she grins, poking his cheek.

"You should be! You don't know how many guys would kill just to have me look their way." Sasuke wonders if she's actually telling the truth. "What about you, Sasuke-kun? Who have you loved before me?"

He thinks for a moment, and the first answer he comes up with is Itachi. But he supposes that's not what Sakura means, is it? "No one," he tells her honestly. "I didn't have time for any of that."

"Really? No random girls that you've met on your travels?"

"Do I look like I was traveling to find and indulge in exotic women, Sakura?"

Her tone is sneaky. "I think you just don't remember."

He sighs. "There's no helping it if that's the case."

"I'm just joking, you know. We should all learn to forgive and let go."

Sasuke thinks that is too romantic of an idea.

"After all," Sakura continues, moving so she's curled up against him, her head in the crook of his neck and shoulder, "I've forgiven you." Sasuke wonders if he should hold her, if he should wrap his arms around her—if he even can, if it would be appropriate.

I'm sorry, he thinks again, and allows himself the luxury of holding her close, of cradling what's become (or maybe always has been) so, so precious to him.

"You think of the good things," he speaks suddenly. Sakura shifts to show that she's listening. "To get through torture. You focus on the good things and hold onto them as hard as you can, because that's what you're returning to if you make it out of there alive."

"If," she echoes against him. "That's a very scary word."

"We live in a scary world." He thinks of days spent with Orochimaru, and days spent hunting down the last of what he could call home.

"Well, it's not as scary anymore now that you're finally back."

And here, Sasuke still doesn't quite feel that Konoha is home—and admittedly, he's not sure if he'll ever feel like Konoha is home—but home is a mentality, not a place. This village is a home for Sakura, but perhaps one day, far into the future, Sakura will become a home for Sasuke.

This is what the small part of him, the part that blindly dreams and is still treacherously human, hopes for.

something deeper and more terrible than you've ever known

"Why do you even hate him that much?"

"Don't use such a petty word," Sai says. "I don't hate."

Sai doesn't hate, Sai doesn't love, Sai doesn't anything. He doesn't feel anything. At least, that's what he's been telling himself.

"If you don't hate Sasuke, then what is it? Why can't you just get along with him like you get along with the rest of us?" Naruto is completely oblivious to the frown set on Sai's lips. "He's not a bad guy, you know."

Logic says Sasuke is not a bad person. Logic says he was driven too much by senseless emotions, reaching for a goal made beautiful and glorious by rage and revenge. Logic says that Sai should let go of these emotions too, if he doesn't want to meet his own demise.

This is why he was purged of them in the first place. Feelings destroy.

He should not be feeling guilt for the things he's done in the past, years too late. His stomach should not twist uncomfortably every time he sees Sakura, eyes gentler than he's ever known, and Naruto, brighter than the sun.

He should not.

But he does.

something niggling, something wrong

"Sasuke? What are you doing here?" Sakura is signing in for her shift at the hospital to see him in the lobby, talking to Ino.

"He's here to help, he says," Ino tells her. "What have you done, domesticated him?"

Ino is also a medic, but not as formidable as Sakura, of course. She dabbles in many things, shinobi and civilian skills alike, and is fairly good at all of them.

"I'm not domesticated," Sasuke retorts, spitting out the word as if it's plagued.

"Oh?" Ino raises an eyebrow. "Then what are you, kind?"

Sakura drags her away before Sasuke does something irreversible. "I'll deal with him," she says. "He's still a little touchy about publicly studying medical jutsu."

Originally, Sasuke was completely fine with it—after all, medical jutsu is a delicate and intricate skill that not many can master—but once Naruto started to make fun of him for it ("You? A medic? Ha! Funny that you'd want to be a medic after you've destroyed everything!"), Sasuke withdrew immediately. Even now, he doesn't mention it, and he's grumpy whenever he's in the hospital.

"Are you really here to help?" she asks as she steps close to him, closer and closer still. Her fingers linger at his wrist.

He pulls away, the walls having suddenly come up. "I'm just here to see you. But you're busy, so I'll catch you later." Sakura watches the doors close, the chains around his heart locked securely, and for a brief moment, he is a stranger. "Don't eat—I'll make dinner."

"Okay." She takes a step back, brow furrowed in confusion. Sasuke leaves the hospital with brisk strides, not once looking back.

Ino sidles up. "Was it something I said?"

would you still love me if you saw what i saw?

"If Ino did something to set you off, she says she's sorry," Sakura says later that evening. Sasuke's made onigiri (a little messy but filled with umeboshi, and perhaps a little love) and they're eating at the kitchen table. Sakura has a large scroll rolled out in front of her; she's studying for the follow-up surgery for one that she conducted earlier today.

"It wasn't," Sasuke replies gruffly. "Not really."

"Then what is it?" She looks up from her scroll, all thoughts of medicine leaving her mind. "What's wrong?"

He shakes his head, midnight hair falling into midnight eyes. "Nothing. I don't know."

Sakura wants to pry (wants to see every last secret of his laid out in front of her), but she gets the feeling that he's telling the truth—that he really doesn't know. So she draws away, wondering if there will ever be a day when she will know every part of him, every dark corner and every shimmer of hope tucked away in the tiny recesses of his heart.

Living with Sasuke is surprisingly easy. She never thought it would be, considering his volatile nature, but he is tidy and he is quiet. Sometimes, she even forgets that he's there altogether.

And she can't help but wonder if this is what she's dreamed of as a twelve-year-old hopeless romantic. Living with Sasuke in a quiet coexistence, all titles and all assumptions stripped away—just Sasuke and just Sakura, drifting in a comfortable peace.

(It is, she thinks. It is.)

"I just want you to know," she says later when they're washing the dishes, "that I love you."

He doesn't answer for so long that she wonders if he heard her at all. But then: "I know. You've said it too many times for me not to know." Sakura bows her head, because she was hoping (blindly hoping, stupidly hoping) for an I love you too. Of course it wouldn't come as easily for Sasuke. Of course.

"And I want you to know," she continues (to make up for whatever it is that he can't say), "that I'll never stop loving you."

"Did you stop?" he asks. "Between the time that I left and the time that I returned."

"I thought I did," she admits. "But now I'm not so sure." Her hands come to a stop on the plate in her hand, coated with suds.

There were nights when she laid in bed thinking about him, as if he'd appear before her if she thought hard enough. There were days when she saw him around every corner, a ghost, a shadow of what used to be, haunting her all the way to her dreams. There were moments where she was too blinded by the fact that she missed him that she couldn't notice anything else that happened around her—which almost cost her her life once, if not for Sai's quick thinking. There were times when she thought the pain would never end.

But then it did. Slowly, ebbing away in such a manner that she almost didn't notice. I wonder what Sasuke-kun's doing today? turned into I bet he's fine, which eventually became nothing at all. Sakura stopped thinking of Sasuke altogether, save for the brief moments when she lingered in the realm between consciousness and sleep. And she almost felt guilty for it, because didn't she swear that she'd love him forever?

But does that really mean that she stopped loving him? Or does that mean her love for him had changed?

If she truly stopped loving him, then why did she never look at any other men? Why did she gently let Neji down and let him go when he asked her out, at the tender age of seventeen, flushed pink in his usually pale cheeks? She liked Neji, and even thought she could come to love him—but she still said no.

Sasuke takes the plate in her hands and finishes rinsing it off. She wants to ask him if he loved her all those years ago, or if he loved her while she was gone. She still remembers his memory of that night, so different from what she imagined it to be; his wavering determination, his bittersweet regret as he knocked her out and placed her on the bench, (almost lovingly) brushing her hair out of her eyes. She still doesn't know what to make of that.

But maybe not today. Today is not the day to indulge in such selfish requests.

"You have—" She turns to Sasuke when he stops mid-sentence. "You have some soap on your cheek," he tries again.

"Where?" He flinches right before she swipes the back of her hand across her right cheek, completely forgetting that her hand is still covered in suds as well. She sighs, slight embarrassment manifesting in the form of a blush. "I look ridiculous, don't I?"

"That's nothing new." She opens her mouth to tell him off, but he grabs a rag and gently wipes her cheeks off, both of them. Her face flushes a deeper red; she didn't even get the correct cheek. "It's a little endearing," Sasuke reassures, even though his flat tone doesn't quite do the trick.

"I didn't know you liked ditzy girls," she teases, washing off her hands before she causes another mishap.

"I don't," he says. "I just like you."

(And maybe that is enough.)

It is so close to the I love you too that Sakura was hoping for that (and maybe it's the same thing?) the simple statement, those tiny words spin around in her stomach to the point where she forgets how to breathe.

Sasuke stares at her, his eyes burning straight through her.

"I'm glad," she breathes, and he swoops down to kiss her.

His hands move tentatively, skirting down her sides and only gently holding her hips—but she reaches down and grips them tight, pressing them harder against her—you can have me, you can have all of me—and there is a push and a pull and she finds herself with her back against the wall. Her hands card through his hair and his rise from her hips, back up her sides and oh

The sun sets early in winter so it's already completely dark when they tumble into her room and onto her bed. This is all so new to her (she likes to think that she's never done this solely because it never felt right, but maybe it's really because she was waiting for Sasuke); the electric touch of someone else's fingers on her skin, the excitement of not knowing what's going to happen, where the warmth will appear next. She's nervous but thrilled at the same time.

He tugs off her shirt slowly, and she lifts her arms to make things easier. She knows she's not as lithe as Ino; not as curvy or as soft, due to years of training and pushing her body's limits. She sits nervously under his expressionless gaze, and it's several moments before he leans in and kisses her neck, her collarbones, littering her expanse of skin with jolts of warmth.

(Actions that say, you are beautiful. Tender touches that say, you are precious. Loving caresses that say, you are irreplaceable.

There is no way this could last.)

When she reaches out to pull off his shirt, he freezes. She stops, too, wondering if she's done something wrong.

His hand encases hers, pulls it away. "Keep it on," he says,

"Why?" she asks, but he's pushed her back and she falls against the pillows.

She doesn't ask again after that.

a final falling into place

"Remind me again why I'm here?" Shikamaru mutters as he's being tugged along by Ino through the Hyuuga compound, the chilly air biting his cheeks.

"Because I'm sick," Ino grinds out (she's the one doing the tugging), "of seeing you sulk all the time."

"I'm not sulking," Shikamaru snaps. "That would imply that it's only temporary."

Ino turns to him suddenly and they halt in their tracks. In the glow of the lanterns decorating the compound, her eyes are glassy—Shikamaru chooses to ignore that she's close to tears. "Just stop it," she says—a tired plea, the words of someone who's just about ready to give up. "Just for tonight. Smile, just for tonight."

It's Christmas Eve. Everyone is celebrating (Shikamaru is still pondering how Hinata convinced the clan elders to allow such an insolent celebration to take place here), but he does not feel it. He hasn't felt it in years.

In the distance, he sees Sakura and Sasuke talking quietly. She hands him a small velvet box, and he opens it to pull out a delicate necklace with a thin pendant. A few words are exchanged, and when a smile blooms on Sakura's face, Shikamaru turns away.

It's nice that Sakura found what he couldn't.

your past, like a broken fairytale

A month later, when there is a thin layer of snow on the ground, he sits her down on her bed (their bed), cross-legged and prepared.

"Do you want to see?"

"See what?"

He reaches, and pulls off his shirt.

Sakura has caught glimpses, through tears and mesh shirts, but never in his entirety—never fathomed the reason why he never wanted to show her. But now she sees—now she realizes what made Sasuke hesitate, a fear so insignificant but so gnawing at the same time:

Scars. Scars, everywhere. So many that she doesn't know where one ends and another begins. The result of not having a medic, for not knowing medical jutsu—letting everything heal by itself, scabbing and scarring, the pain disappearing but the phantom ache never going away. Sasuke is covered in scars, head to toe, and this is just his body—she can't imagine how many he has on his heart.

"Oh, Sasuke," she breathes, and pulls him close. His face rests in the soft curve of her neck, eyelashes fluttering against her skin. "We all have shortcomings. It's nothing to be ashamed about."

Proof that he's failed. Proof that he didn't know how to cope, just gritted his teeth and sat through it.

Sasuke, a grown man, but still seven years old on the inside.

She takes his hand, laces their fingers together—an action they've done several times before, but so much more intimate now. "You've seen mine, right?" She pulls down the waistband of her shorts by an inch to show the short but thick scar—the only one that she decided to keep.

"Where's it from?" His fingertips touch the scar tissue, barely, sending shivers up her spine.

"My fight with Sasori. It could've killed me, but it didn't." She smiles softly. "Scars don't always define our failures. They also count the number of times we've survived." His thumb traces those two inches, over and over again. Sasuke is lost in thought—she places her hand on his and makes him stop. His eyes rest on her, unguarded, tired. She smiles. "Look at how many times you've survived, Sasuke."

She spends the next several hours lying him down, pressing gentle kisses to every single one of his scars—making sure he knows that he is loved. Letting him know that he will always, always be loved.


A/N: This chapter (and subsequent chapters as well) will be in slightly different formats from the chapters leading up until now. Because things are finally building, and with any luck, I'll actually be able to finish this.

I know you guys liked this chapter (because I definitely do), so please let me know what you think! Please inspire me again, because I want to be able to pull through. This fic is what got me back into writing for this fandom and I have a stunning ending planned—I just need to be able to get there. So please, tell me your thoughts! Or your suspicions, or anything of the sort. :)

(NejiSaku even in a story where it shouldn't exist. You're welcome.)