go the converse
thank you all for the lovely reviews.
iii. happy flowers from the mountains
The shoujo manga Sakura likes to read are full of love confessions made on a rooftop somewhere, or perhaps near a baseball field, and usually to the backdrop of a setting sun. It is a matter of aesthetics, Sakura understands, that the environment of the confession should be as lovely and romance-soaked as the confession itself; more practically, there's the matter of setting the mood. Nothing is quite so nostalgic, so full of pure-hearted youth, as empty basefields or quiet rooftops in the rosy light of sunset. They make the heart wistful.
Real life is never so convenient. After all, Sakura has no business going near the baseball fields, and the rooftop is off limits except to maintenance workers. Still, one spring morning, when the daffodils are beginning to push their way through the half-melted snow, she runs into Sasuke in a hallway near the electrical engineering classrooms. "Oh, good morning!" she says.
"Yes," says Sasuke. Half a year ago, he might have breezed on past her; now he stops and nods a greeting.
"I had fun at your kendo match the other day. Sasuke-kun looks really good in a hakama!" Sakura tells him, laughingly.
"Shut up," he replies, and thumps her lightly on the forehead with the spine of the books he holds in one hand. "I'm not inviting you again."
"No, no! Invite me again!" Sakura insists, and peers up at him from under the books: the easy strength in his broad shoulders, and the faint smirk drawing the corners of his mouth up, and the amused tilt of his eyes, dark and patient as he looks at her. There is nothing unwilling in the way he stands with her in an empty hallway, friendly teasing company. Sakura feels awash in a sudden flood of affection—and really, in the end, nothing makes her heart so wistful as Sasuke-kun.
"What?" he says.
Sakura takes a step back. "Sasuke-kun," she says. "Do you—" He looks back at her, arm slowly lowering. Sakura takes a breath. "Do you want—to get some tea? With me, sometime?"
Sasuke is still for a long moment. "Sakura," he says, finally. "Don't."
"Because, towards Sasuke-kun, I—" She's come this far; and even if he doesn't want to hear it—even if he doesn't want to hear it— "I like you."
"Sakura," says Sasuke, again. There is something terrible in the way he says her name, as if she had broken something expensive, or stolen something precious, or taken something that was his away from him.
It's answer enough. It's no use, thinks Sakura. But what had she been expecting? Sakura looks down at his shoes, at the scuffed tiles on the floor; she waits. It's best to do these things in full—for closure, if nothing else. For a long time, they are silent.
Then Sasuke sighs, more tired than regretful. Very clearly, he says, "I'm sorry." There is no hesitation in his words. "I don't feel the same way."
Ah, thinks Sakura, distantly: a rejection. I've been rejected.
"No," she manages, with an impressive level of coherence. "I—it's all right. I'm sorry to have troubled you—I—Please don't mind me, then."
She can't meet his eyes. Sakura hurries past and leaves.
She tries to avoid him, of course. This ends up more difficult than Sakura had expected: Sasuke, after all, is not the sort to go out of his way because a girl might feel awkward; Sakura—well, Sakura has class, after all, and homework, and projects. It's one thing to have your heart broken; it's another to not go to the library.
After three days, though, of hurriedly ducking behind a bookshelf because Sasuke was coming down a neighboring aisle, or veering towards the book drop as he came out the front doors, or holding a book up in front of her face as he passed by her desk—Sakura gives up. She can't keep up this one-sided hide-and-seek; it's too exhausting.
She calls Ino, who had been the most fabulous bitch queen from hell in high school and also Sakura's best friend. Ino had taught Sakura how to put on make-up, and how to walk in high heels, and how to glare at boys until they knew that they weren't welcome; Sakura taught Ino calculus and let Ino copy her chemistry notes and made Ino history flashcards and quizzed her on them too. Ino, thinks Sakura, Ino-chan will know what to do.
"I could take you out clubbing," says Ino, a little dubiously. "But I'll have to refit your wardrobe first."
"I'm not looking for a rebound," protests Sakura. "Also, you're like two hours away; how am I supposed to go clubbing with you?" Ino grumbles a little. Sakura talks over it. "What are girls supposed to do when they've been rejected? Are there movies I'm supposed to watch? How do I make the whole awkward thing not awkward?—Because I don't know how to avoid him without avoiding the library, and I really can't avoid the library, Ino-chan."
"Forehead-girl," says Ino, "your priorities are fucked up." She pauses. "Are you sure you don't want a rebound? There are some nice guys I know, who I can—"
"Ino, the last 'nice guy' you set me up with was Rock Lee, all right, I don't—"
"There is no one nicer than Rock Lee."
There really isn't. "Five hundred nice guys are not as nice as Rock Lee," agrees Sakura. "But it's sort of like you set me up with five hundred nice guys, you know? I'm good."
"You big forehead," grumps Ino. "You don't appreciate what I do for you. All right, all right—fine, then. Go watch some terrible romance movies, see if I care. Eat your chocolate and paint your nails and—hey, do you want to cut your hair? You can cut your hair."
"It is getting kind of long," says Sakura.
So Sakura runs out to the convenience store: she stocks up on chocolate and ice cream and marshmallows. In the chips aisle, she stands still for a while and looks at potato chips—but New Year's was a long time ago. Sakura turns away.
Before, Sakura hadn't spent all that much time with Sasuke, so it isn't as if his absence has left a gaping, irreplaceable hole in her life. After all, Sakura still has her friends, and her classmates, and her schoolwork; Sakura is busy, and working, and that makes things a little better. But—running into him at the breakfast cafe, or stopping by to peek in on kendo practice, or reading the newspaper and wondering if he was reading it as well—those had made Sakura happy. Everything is somehow a little dimmer now; missing Sasuke hurts, in a vague, dull way that makes getting out of bed in the mornings inexpressibly harder.
Sakura cuts her hair: she feels light-headed afterwards, unused to missing the weight of its length. She eats chocolate, and ice cream, and marshmallows dipped in peanut butter; she watches old television melodramas, the kind where the girl secretly has leukemia and the guy is for several episodes almost the girl's brother, but everything ends well on a beach at sunset. Sakura cries over the beaches and the sunsets, at first, at the happy endings because it was such a long, circuitous route to get there; she keeps crying, because it seems easier to cry than to stop; and then Sakura is sobbing, because Sasuke-kun, Sasuke-kun—Sasuke-kun, who is tall and dark-eyed and handsome; Sasuke-kun, who is quiet and sharp-tongued and never wastes his words; Sasuke-kun, whose hair curls when wet and who reads his newspapers out of order and who drinks coffee for breakfast; Sasuke-kun, who said, "I'm sorry," like it was perfunctory, and "I don't feel the same way," like it was the truth, and Sasuke-kun, Sasuke-kun, Sasuke-kun—
Sakura cries, because sometimes there is nothing else to do.
It is not that things get better after that—but even if it is harder, Sakura still gets out of bed in the mornings. That must count for something. Sakura stops reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ears; Sakura is getting used to it. Sakura is getting used to a lot of things. Soon, she thinks, I will be able to say hello to him without embarrassment. Soon, she thinks, we can be cordial strangers again. He will like that, Sakura imagines; Sasuke, after all, has no use for frivolous things, for heartsick pining or girls' hearts.
So Sakura is surprised when Sasuke approaches her, one rainy afternoon, between the reference stacks in the library. "O-oh!" stammers Sakura, and immediately turns away.
"Sakura," says Sasuke. It isn't an accident, then, that he approached her.
She keeps her back turned, embarrassed.
"Are you still—" he says, and then stops. "What do you—" he tries, and then stops again.
Curiosity gets the better of her. Sakura chances a peek over her shoulder: Sasuke isn't looking at her. He is scowling blackly at the ground. His shoulders are tense, and there is frustrated impatience in the way he holds himself, so different from his usual detached ease. Somehow, he seems almost helpless in his ineloquence, unable to say all the things he would like. Sakura turns a little toward him. "Sasuke-kun—?" she ventures.
"What do you know about me?" he bursts out. He raises his head, glaring at her—angry. "Who is this 'Sasuke-kun' you've created, and liked?"
"I haven't created—!" protests Sakura.
"What do you know about me?" he asks again, barreling on with sudden vehemence. "What do you know about my family, and how I grew up;—and where I came from and what I want? How can you know Uchiha Sasuke without that?"
"How can you like someone you don't even know?"
Sakura stares at him. He has tensed even more, hands curling into fists. He's angry, but Sakura has seen enough of disgruntled Sasuke and displeased Sasuke and annoyed Sasuke to know that he's hardly ever truly angry about things—it's always cover for something else. Sakura turns to face him fully. "You're right," agrees Sakura. "I don't know much about Uchiha Sasuke. But—for me, Sasuke-kun has always been Sasuke first and Uchiha second. And I know that Sasuke-kun dresses up for hatsumode and that Sasuke-kun's favorite poet is Narihira and that—... That even if Sasuke-kun is not always nice, he can be very kind."
"You're—" Sasuke presses his lips together, so tight they turn white; as if it were a restraint, as if he feared to say anything. At last, he hisses with savage bitterness, "I'm not!"
—But this time, he leaves first.
What do you know about me? Sasuke had asked her, almost like a challenge, almost like an invitation. Sakura does not know how to refuse Sasuke, even now. There are some things only he can tell her, but there are many other things she can find out herself: to start with, his family.
Sakura is by no means any sort of hacker, but she had expected a fair amount of digging necessary in her research. Instead, a simple internet search turns up a wealth of public records and articles from old newspaper archives. This is too easy, thinks Sakura, feeling uneasy, but she starts reading nonetheless. Sasuke's family was a high profile one, well-documented in news stories and society tabloids: his father the police chief superintendent, his mother a public prosecutor, his aunts and uncles and cousins so many all in the police force. Hardly strange, the articles opined: they were an old family, the Uchiha Clan, a family of samurai, with a tradition of loyalty and service. Protection was bred into their bones.
The early articles are mostly society fluff, op-ed pieces. These are followed by some more serious articles, discussing policy changes the police chief superintendent was implementing and court cases the public prosecutor was bringing to trial. Then come the articles alluding to rumblings of gang warfare; reports following the police investigation; and then a flurry of pieces from every sort of media outlet, all describing in exquisite detail just one night—a yakuza shootout and the massacre of the whole family—implacably listing names and ages and causes of death—there is coverage of the response of the emergency response teams, who arrived too late, and of the motivations of the different yakuza gangs, who inexplicably ended up working together, and of the different calibers of guns that were used that night, none of them the sort used by police—and at the end of all the articles, the mention of one survivor, a small boy, the younger son of the head family, injured but expected to make a full recovery, seven years of age—
Sakura slams shut her laptop in horror.
What do you know about me? Sasuke had asked.
Sakura doesn't know what to do with any of this: knowledge which isn't so newfound, now that she thinks about it—all the whispered rumors, an old samurai line but steeped in yakuza alliances; and from further back, a vague childhood memory of a televised funeral procession, the entire Ministry of Justice gone into mourning for a day. What does she know about Sasuke, really, if she didn't know even this—and yet, wonders Sakura, at the same time, what did this change?
Sakura loses herself in these ponderings, and only catches herself when she realizes that she has been for the better part of an hour staring at Sasuke, sitting two tables over in the cafeteria. He looks up, and catches her eyes.
Sakura hurriedly looks down at her katsudon lunch, cheeks flushing hot. Sorry, she thinks at him, I'm sorry.
But several moments later, a pair of long legs enters her periphery, and when Sakura glances up, Sasuke is folding himself into the seat next to her. "Your lunch is cold," he says.
"I still like you," blurts Sakura. Sasuke freezes. Sakura, horrified, can't help but continue, "I'm sorry. I don't know how to stop. I tried to—I know you don't want—I'm sorry."
Sasuke is still for a moment longer, and then he mostly just looks pained. "Stop it," he tells her. "You—just stop. I can't—why did you —couldn't we just..." He scowls at her, aggrieved, as if blaming her for this surprising lack of eloquence and moreover, sudden verbosity. They are quiet for a beat. "Your lunch is cold," says Sasuke again, bitingly.
"Ah," Sakura pokes at her rice with a pair of chopsticks; it is cold, growing stiff. "Yes."
Sasuke regards her lunch for a while, a muscle in his jaw working. Then he raises his eyes to hers in a glare, apparently come to some decision. "Where are you?" he demands.
"What—?" Sakura blinks. "I'm...right here?"
"No, you're not," he says. "You're not here."
What does that even mean? Sakura eyes him warily. Where is she then, if not 'here'? Sasuke is looking down at her lunch bowl again, shoulders tense. He's said said something he didn't want to. Sakura thinks about how Sasuke-kun speaks, how he never asks for anything—how he never wants, never gives hint to discomfort; aloof, self-sufficient, cold. And yet, he was telling her that she wasn't there—no, he had said, 'here'. Here, where he was.
"Should I..." Sakura hesitates. "...come back?"
He scowls some more, but there is a loosening in his shoulders: as ill-humored as ever, but anxiety relieved. "Whatever," he mutters, still not meeting her eyes. Then, more clearly: "Do what you please."
Sakura has enough experience in avoiding-Sasuke-not-avoiding-the-library that she knows where his customary seat is located—by the third window, behind the chemistry reference bookshelf. After she finishes for the day, Sakura gathers up her things and goes to find him. He's hunched over the table, bangs pinned back and chewing thoughtfully on the end of his pen.
"Hello," says Sakura.
Sasuke looks up. With his bangs pulled back, his eyes look enormous and he appears, suddenly, very young. "Sakura," he says.
"Do you have a moment?" she asks. "I want to—if we could—"
"Yes," he says, and gathers up his books, and picks up his backpack, and follows her outside.
"I'm sorry," Sakura says, as they stop on an empty stretch of sidewalk. "I'm sorry that I avoided you. I was embarrassed, and a little hurt; but—Sasuke-kun is, to me, a good friend, and I shouldn't have—I didn't mean to...because Sasuke-kun is still a good friend, and I—I don't want to lose that."
"Ah," says Sasuke.
"And," continues Sakura. "Even if Sasuke-kun doesn't feel the same way, even if it's not reciprocated—" She looks up and meets his eyes; dark as ever, looking back at her. Sakura declares, "I'm glad that it was Sasuke-kun. I'm glad my first confession was to Sasuke-kun."
"Idiot," Sasuke grumbles, with an extremely put-upon sigh.
Sakura smiles, recognizing it for the act it is: after all, in his own fumbling graceless way he had missed her. He had asked her to come back. "Did you miss me?" she teases—little raw still, not as easily as before; but she's getting there.
"Like a cankersore," he replies.
"I've leveled up, then! Before, it might have been athlete's foot."
"Are cankersores are preferable to athlete's foot?"
"Well, you get over cankersores, don't you?" Sakura smiles up at him. "So we'll get over this."
"Yes," says Sakura. "So—please be patient with me. I'll work hard." She clenches a fist, and raises it to show him.
Sasuke regards her quietly for several moments. Then he says, "Come along," and turning, strides away down the sidewalk.
Sakura hurries after him. "Where are we going?"
He glances at her over his shoulder. "I was your first rejection, right? It should be commemorated."
"...Don't buy me red rice."
He scoffs. "Alcohol, alcohol," he says.
"Ah—you mean commiserated, then."
Sasuke stops mid-stride, and wheels around to level a finger at her. He says, sternly, "Be grateful that you received your first rejection from someone like me. It is an honor." Then he turns back around and continues his way down the street. Laughing, Sakura follows.
Sasuke takes her to an out of the way bar, just outside of campus. Sakura knows her beers, but not her sake; Sasuke rolls his eyes at her about this, but is apparently otherwise unsurprised. "Uncouth," he calls her, and sets himself to her education, explaining the polishing of rice and the filtering process and—well, Sakura doesn't really remember any of it. Alcohol makes Sakura forgetful, just as it makes Sasuke didactic. They both get more than a little tipsy.
Afterwards, they half-stumble their way back to campus—that is, Sakura stumbles and Sasuke glowers at the ground and walks in the most absurdly straight line possible. Eventually, Sakura pleads dizziness, so they find a park bench to rest on. Sakura has passed the giggling phase of her drunken-ness; now, the alcohol only makes her feel very mellow. Tired, she lists in one direction. One of Sasuke's arms come up, and pulls her in the other direction—toward him. She ends up pliant against his chest, head on his shoulder. Sasuke slouches down, and tilts his head back. Sakura follows his gaze. They look up at the moon for a while.
"Sorry," says Sasuke, softly, almost into her hair.
There's really only one thing he could be apologizing about. There's only one thing he's ever apologized to her about. "It couldn't be helped," Sakura replies.
"I'm—I'm a reminder," says Sasuke, still in that hushed, too soft voice, quiet as starlight. "Everyday, when you see me. It will be painful."
"Hmm?" says Sakura, closing her eyes and sagging into him.
After a long moment, Sasuke says: "I moved away because—" He pauses. "My family house. I had a very large family, and living there—I always remembered—I...you looked it up, I guess?'
"Of course you did." His chest makes a sudden movement, almost a laugh. "Haruno Sakura always first resorts to research."
"What," says Sakura, fuzzily.
"No," says Sasuke, slow. "It is not a bad quality." He falls silent again. And then: "Reminders hurt. So I'm—I'm sorry. If you didn't want to come back. That I asked."
Sakura doesn't say anything for a moment. She turns her face into his shoulder; he allows it. "Like I thought," she says, voice muffled, "You're very kind, aren't you?" They stay like that for a while. He looks up at the moon, and doesn't pay any attention to the hot wetness, seeping through the fabric of his shirt at the shoulder.
Eventually, Sakura lifts her head and looks at him. She says, voice still a little thick, "I made a confession and failed and yet, here I am, still. So—it wasn't really a failure, was it?" She swallows, and says, "It's—it's an honor."
"Ah," he says, low.
"And—even if it hurts. I think it will become a good memory; a happy memory."
The moon is pale and bright and lovely. Sakura rests her head back on Sasuke's shoulder; and they watch the slow moonrise together.
Sometime later, Sakura says again, "I'm glad it was Sasuke-kun."
She must have fallen asleep after that: dimly, as from a dream, she thinks he tells her, "Thank you." And there is the memory of movement, of a broad back under her cheek. She wakes up the next morning in her apartment, in wrinkled clothes but with her shoes pulled off. There is a glass of water on the bedstand, and two aspirin tablets.
notes: "red rice", or sekihan—sticky rice boiled with red beans, often served on special occasions to celebrate something.
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