Healing doesn't mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.

Sasuke could say, with certainty, that he knew what pain was. He had an intimate understanding of what betrayal and pain and hatred were. He had spent the majority of his life thriving on nothing short of those three things, and his hunger for vengeance. Now, he was running dry and he found himself sputtering to a halt without his fuel. The walls of Konoha felt like a cage, and he was the bird on display with raw and bleeding wings. The bars of a cage were often to protect; to keep safe the animal inside and the people who would look in on it.

Instead, Sasuke got trapped with the people who stared at him, who spoke in hushed whispers. They didn't hide their anger or distrust, nor their displeasure with Tsunade agreeing to keep Sasuke in the village instead of executing him or locking him away. Now, Sasuke was nineteen and he no longer had any goals driving him forward. He was still walking, but he was on an aimless path with nothing waiting for him at the end of it. At least, in this house, Sasuke could walk without having to look over his shoulder. He could sleep without one eye open, afraid of what lurked in the shadows.

In his own bed, Sasuke could feel safe, and it wasn't a feeling he would trade for anything in the world. As he lay there, tugging at the sweater he'd gone to bed in, Sasuke exhaled a shaky sigh. It was warm with the sweater, but he couldn't bear to face the scars that marred his own skin. He, like every ninja, had his own scars.

But, some of the stories behind his scars were different, and they were the same stories that haunted Sasuke's dreams. The scars that he ran his fingertips over, the ugly and jagged marks on his inner thighs and hips, the ones on his back. Even the marks that had healed, he could still sometimes see in the trick of the night, as if the bruises on his wrists had never healed.

As Sasuke rolled over in bed to finally fall asleep, he closed his eyes against the nerve-wracking darkness ahead of his eyes. He had an early morning, Sakura had promised to fetch him because she wanted his help with picking out a gift for her girlfriend. Well, he supposed that he'd ended up sharing more in common with her then he'd thought.

Rubbing at his wrist under his sweater, Sasuke curled up around his pillow, ducking his head as if to hide. He may be safe in his own home, but sometimes, Sasuke still felt like something was waiting for him to drop his guard. Predators preyed on weakness—and Sasuke could not allow himself to become prey again. No one else was going to keep him safe, he had relied on himself ever since he was a child. It was a shame that a child was often pretty bad at understanding they weren't as strong as they thought they were. There were always people who would take advantage of that.

Sasuke had demons in his past, and they still had their claws dug deep inside.

Sasuke sighed, not for the first time, as Sakura looked between the two necklaces she was debating about purchasing. He folded his arms, the sleeves of his jacket almost long enough to cover his hands. The oversized ones felt nicer—safer.

"Sasuke, which one, do you think?" Sakura asked (also not for the first time) as she held the two choices up. One was a pinkish stone on a gold chain, and the other was what Sasuke believed to be a pearl set in a silver locket. With absent thought, he nodded to the left, choosing the pearl. Sakura frowned at his taciturn answer, cocking a rosette brow. "You could put more effort into this, ne?" she asked, once again holding the jewelry close to Sasuke's face.

"I don't see how your girlfriend's birthday involves me," Sasuke remarked, his face set in a dry expression. He might've preferred staying at home, but his teammates both seemed bent on getting Sasuke out of the house at least every other day. Perhaps it was better than lying around in that place, though it didn't have the haunting memories, it still had the shadows.

Seeing that Sakura was waiting on a more satisfactory answer, Sasuke's shoulders sagged as he finally dredged up a decent explanation. "That one will match her eyes, won't it? It'll look better," he said, watching as Sakura's eyes lit up. That was about enough to make it worth it.

"Perfect!" she exclaimed, slinging the pink stone back onto its hanger and using the freed hand to grab Sasuke's wrist. He didn't have much choice in following her as she dragged him to purchase the gift. "You can come with me to give it to her, it'll do you good to get around other people. The others are starting to think you're a ghost that only Naruto, Kakashi and I can see."

"Aren't I?" Sasuke said flatly, wincing as Sakura dug her elbow into his side. He didn't have any real arguments against Sakura's reasoning, aside from not having any particular desire to lurk around the Hyūga compound. He was willing to bet that Sakura was going to abandon him in favor of Hinata. Nonetheless, he allowed Sakura to drag him along. "I could have you arrested for kidnapping should I want to," he told her.

Rolling her eyes at Sasuke's pouting, she patted him on the shoulder. "It's not so bad. Neji-san returned home from a long-term mission recently, I wouldn't just leave you alone!"

Sasuke's shoulders hunched. Being left alone might have been preferable. Neji always made Sasuke feel open, as if Neji could read him even past the walls Sasuke had securely built around himself. He felt tempted to tell Sakura right there that he'd changed his mind, but the Hyūga compound was already looming in the distance, and Sakura was hurrying faster towards it. Sasuke withheld a sigh, accepting his fate. All he had to do was politely say his greetings and then he could leave, right? Sakura said nothing about sticking around, only that Sasuke had to accompany her.

Sakura was practically vibrating as she knocked on the door, her green eyes alight with ebullience. Hinata was the one thing that never failed to bring a smile to Sakura's face, Sasuke noted. That must be a nice feeling.

The door opened, revealing Hinata dressed in her casual clothes and with her hair done in a braid. "Oh, Sakura-chan!" Hinata greeted, a smile jumping to her lips. "And S…Sasuke-kun! It's nice to see you both!" She stepped to the side to allow her guests inside, smiling warmly all the while.

Sakura paused to give Hinata a quick kiss, to which the heiress flushed and stuttered out a small chastisement for doing such a thing in front of a guest. Sasuke afforded Hinata a slight nod of his head in greeting, already feeling a little claustrophobic in the unfamiliar house. Sakura didn't seem to pick up on it as she waved her hand over her shoulder at him and linked her free arm with Hinata's, leading her girlfriend to (Sasuke presumed) her bedroom. "I won't be long, Sasuke!"

Yes, sure, Sasuke believed his teammate completely.

Now what was he going to do, loiter around until Sakura came back? He couldn't leave when she was expecting him to stay—he would never hear the end of that one.

Crossing his arms, Sasuke pursed his lips, deciding on taking a little walk around the compound. There were several displays of artwork and well cared for plants that had caught the Uchiha's interest. Besides, with nothing else to do aside from being nosy, it was as good an idea as any. Sasuke could have sat inside, rigid and out of place on the couch, but where was the fun in that?

"Uchiha, what an odd surprise," a smooth voice interrupted Sasuke's exploration. Right, the fun might've been in not running into this problem.

Sasuke cut his eyes to the side, not even bothering to turn around to greet Neji, who stood watching him with narrowed eyes. "Sakura brought me with her to deliver something to Hinata," the Uchiha explained coolly. "They went upstairs a few minutes ago."

"And you thought it appropriate to stick around?" Neji asked, as if Sasuke had not been invited into the house and had instead barged inside and announced that he lived there. Now having a purpose to stay (to annoy Neji) Sasuke turned to look over his shoulder at the older man, a fine brow cocked in question. It was an enjoyable habit.

"Am I not welcome?" Sasuke asked, as benignly as he could manage. It was an odd relationship he shared with Neji that tended to consist of banter.

Neji sighed, closing his eyes as if he were searching for the patience to deal with Sasuke. The young man had a talent for finding people's nerves, and he had a fondness for grinding on them. Inclining his head towards the kitchen, indicating that Sasuke should follow, Neji headed off.

Sasuke debated for a moment if he wanted to follow, finding himself in a tough spot. It'd be rude to ignore Neji, but…being in the room alone with other men still made Sasuke anxious. It was a shameful admittance, but Sasuke felt wary even around those he knew had no bad intentions. It had taken Sasuke weeks to allow even Kakashi close to him again. He wasn't quite there yet with others.

Nonetheless, Sasuke decided to bite the bullet. Tsunade, after having evaluated Sasuke herself, had offered him a few guidance suggestions. Dealing with situations that wouldn't endanger you but would test your comfort zones a bit was a good start. Not that Sasuke had technically started, but now was as good a time as any. Neji was too calm to startle Sasuke, and too steady to get shaken should Sasuke panic and decide to leave without so much as a goodbye. Neji was one of the few who had taken it upon themselves to actually try talking to Sasuke these past several months.

Not that Sasuke had exactly been seeking out the others to befriend, but he hadn't avoided Neji. In the long run, he'd found Neji to be a good source of witty conversation. It was refreshing, a break from Sasuke's team that he needed. So, with a deep breath, Sasuke headed into the kitchen with Neji. There, he found the brunet pouring a couple glasses of wine, one of which he passed to Sasuke. "You look like you could use a drink," Neji commented, though he didn't share why he thought that.

"After spending the day shopping for a gift for your cousin, who wouldn't?" Sasuke murmured, taking a sip and allowing the refreshing flavor to coat his tongue. "Not to insult your cousin so much as Sakura's all-day excursions, as if finding a present is life or death."

Neji snorted at that, affording Sasuke the rare glimpse of the person behind the often rigid and refined walls. "I can imagine," Neji said, his eyes glancing Sasuke up and down. "It must be unbearable wearing that in this summer heat."

Sasuke stiffened, his fingers tightening on his glass. If Neji noticed Sasuke's discomfort, he didn't let it stop him. "Why is it that I always see you wearing those long sleeves? You must get warm."

"It doesn't concern you," Sasuke responded, bristling. He'd downed the wine before realizing it, and now he had nothing to distract himself with.

Neji crossed his arms as he stared the younger boy down. "After all this time, and you still won't let anyone in. What is it, Uchiha? Are you afraid?"

"Don't talk as if you know me!" Sasuke snapped, slamming the glass down as his defenses reared up. Neji didn't have the right, none of them had the right to try prying. That's what Sasuke got for trying to test his boundaries, people trying to break them down, always wanting more than he was willing to give. Always. He turned to leave, deciding that right there was where the edge of his boundaries ended. "I'm leaving. Tell Sakura I'm sorry," he muttered, his back facing Neji.

Before Sasuke could take a step, slim fingers slipped into his hand, grasping it and bringing him to a pause. Jolts shot through his nerves, so startled was he by the sudden contact. It was cool and calm, no anger or harshness was behind the touch as Neji gently stopped Sasuke. "Sasuke," Neji said, though Sasuke hardly heard him through the buzzing in his head. "I am not your enemy, nor do I intend to make myself such. I don't understand why you're so defensive—"

Sasuke flinched, embarrassed of his own reactions and how clearly they displayed him, but before he could cut in, Neji continued.

"—but I would like to," Neji finished.

Stunned, Sasuke fell still completely, the tension he'd had as he tugged on his arm falling lax. The words took time to process in his head, they were so unfamiliar. Sasuke couldn't remember when someone had last said that, had expressed a wish to…well, to understand. He knew his team tried, there was empathy in places as well as sympathy, but...understanding was difficult to come by. People assumed, of course. Oh, they loved assuming every reason behind Sasuke's actions, his behavior, like he was an experiment to study. Sasuke had seen what happened to experiments, he wasn't interested.

Slowly, Neji's fingertips pushed against Sasuke's sleeve, slipping it up to reveal old marks on Sasuke's wrist. "Sasuke," Neji exhaled the boy's name as if it in itself were fragile. "Did he do this to you?"

Sasuke tugged his hand away, and Neji allowed him to. "See what they mean when they say I'm damaged?" the Uchiha murmured, slipping some self-depreciative humor into his voice. Neji was quick to shake his head, appalled. Had people truly said such things of Sasuke, when the boy was so obviously a victim?

"Sasuke, that isn't true, don't let people speak about you in such deplorable ways," Neji chided. He rested his hand against Sasuke's back with gentle, steadfast reassurance.

"Why do you always try so hard to get into my head? I'm broken, you're wasting your time." Sasuke didn't mean to snap, but he couldn't understand Neji's stubborn attempts at talking to him. He was the only one of the other Konoha Twelve to bother with anything past acknowledgment, and it made Sasuke suspicious, paranoid of what Neji wanted. Did he want anything at all?

"We're all a little broken, Sasuke. That's how the light gets in," Neji kept his voice soft, as if afraid he might startle Sasuke. He'd seen the way Sasuke jumped at sudden sounds, the way he flinched, or tried to keep himself away from certain people, mainly other older men. "I have no intentions of harming you, Sasuke. You're safe when you're with me."

Sasuke scoffed, but he allowed his eyes to shut, exhausted and uncertain why. He felt much like he did after a harsh training session, but he'd hardly done anything short of walking Sakura around that day. Leaning forward, Sasuke tensed as Neji moved, catching Sasuke before the boy could hit against the counter. A quiet hush came as Neji soothed Sasuke, concern lying underneath his calm exterior. God knew that Sasuke needed something steady.

"I'm a lot of work," Sasuke said, somewhat teasing, but he knew it was true. Neji had to know, too, so why he was bothering was still beyond Sasuke.

"Everything that's worth it takes work, you should be familiar with that." Neji glanced outside, noting the sun setting. "Allow me to walk you home, it will be safer that way."

Privately, Sasuke knew that he was in no real danger, not a shinobi of his caliber. His brain, though, sometimes did not register that, and Neji respecting that was something Sasuke hadn't known he'd needed…well, wanted.

And if, in the future, those hands were to lay against old scars with reverence and care, promising to heal, well. Perhaps that was something Sasuke had wanted, too.

I apologize for how short this is, but I wanted to change the whole basis of the story. I don't know what went through my head with the original idea, but here we have a more nurturing, cautious side to healing. I hope it's still okay, considering the previous version was actually just indulgent sex that made no sense to what I was trying to portray as Neji attempting to help Sasuke recover. Like, why were you like that, younger me?