A/N: This is a sequel to Skeptics and True Believers, a oneshot I posted more than two years ago. I highly recommend that you read it first if you want full comprehension of this fic (and even if you have read it, to read it again in case you've forgotten the details, because this picks up right where it ends). NejiSaku is my secret OTP, what else is new, etc. etc.

— — —

"How was your day?" Neji stays still as she gently tugs his brush through his hair.

"It was fine," Sakura replies. She doesn't mention that she spent the majority of her day worried about him—after all, it was her fault that he was so severely injured during his dragon hunt. She supposes she should be flattered that she could distract him from such a large and dangerous creature.

It's quiet after that, and she continues to brush his hair, as softly and tenderly as she can. She thinks Neji leans into her touch, imperceptibly.

la gaudière
gonna make a heartthrob out of me; just a bit of minor surgery.

It takes Neji more than a moon to fully recover from his injuries. Once the doctor finally allows him to get out of bed, it's nearly another moon to regain full function again. At first, he needs assistance with walking, or even eating; his knees give out from under him, or his hands shake while trying to eat.

It angers him, Sakura knows. The frustration is clearly written on his face. Neji is a prince, and will soon be king—this is not the way he should be.

But when she's with him—when she's the one helping him walk, when she's the one who patiently wraps his fingers around his fork to try again, he seems softer around the edges. He takes a deep breath, and for her, keeps trying.

Sometimes, Sakura wonders what she did to deserve someone like him.

She still doesn't love him.

This is a fact she is constantly trying to change, but she supposes love doesn't come just because she wills it to. It doesn't matter that she is Neji's bride—what does matter is her family's messenger, her childhood friend and everything beyond that. What does matter is Sasuke's loyalty, not only to her, but her entire family; his words that convey little but his actions that speak volumes; every time he snuck into her room so they could just talk all night. Their last moment together—his lips against her eyelids, stopping her tears like a magician.

"Do you love me?"

"Sometimes, when my control slips."

What hurts isn't that they can't be together, but it's that they could've been together.

Sometimes, Neji will reach out to smooth down her hair, or talk with her at night in bed, even if he doesn't quite understand most of the things she's trying to convey. And sometimes, the loneliness eats at her so much that she thinks she'll die—so she moves a little closer to him under the covers. And although Neji isn't Sasuke, Neji is oftentimes enough. He's warm and he's there and he pulls her close, even if he's awkward and once, accidentally hit her in the face.

Neji tries, and that's more than she could ever ask for. Sakura thinks it's only fair that she tries, too.

"Have you ever had tomatoes before?"

"Once, when I was very young. I recall enjoying them greatly."

"Oh, not you, too! I find them nauseating."

The first time he kisses her, she's forgets how to breathe.

Their daily routine is always the same: breakfast, lessons, lunch, and other duties that they must tend to as prince and princess. Sakura and Neji may be married, but they do not spend all of their together; in fact, on some days, they might only see each other during meals and after they have finished all of their responsibilities.

It's a little lonely sometimes, Sakura admits. But those are the sacrifices the royalty has to make.

It's a regular morning when it happens; Neji is accompanying her to her lessons with Tsunade, saying words that, in retrospect, are meaningless. Political news, the weather—all things that Sakura doesn't particularly care for, but they're all Neji knows, because he's shaping himself to be a king. He's very admirable in that sense, she thinks—that at the age of seventeen, his eyes already speak great knowledge and wisdom.

"Well, have a good day," she says, her hands folded neatly in front of her, as she should.

"Do you feel ill?" Neji frowns. "Your face is flushed."

"Oh, not at all! It's just my corset. The maids tied it a little tighter than usual today—it is slightly difficult to breathe." It's always difficult to breathe. I hate corsets.

(Sasuke-kun never tied them too tight.)

"Ah." Neji nods, not sure of what to say in regards to her clothing. "Next time, you should tell them. They will redo it."

"I'll remember that."

She's about to enter her classroom, but Neji opens his mouth again, as if he still has something to say. She waits. He shuts his mouth.

He leans forward, and his lips press against her cheek, just for a moment.

"Have a good day," he mutters, and quickly strides away.

For the next several seconds, Sakura is left frozen in the hallway, her heart beating so fast and so hard that her corset can't even hold it in. Her face is hot and her breathing is shallow, and she finds herself reliving that tiny moment when he was so close, his lips on her cheek, the tip of his nose brushing her skin.

She clears her throat, steadies her breathing, wills her heart to slow down, and presses down nonexistent wrinkles in her dress. Then she enters her classroom.

Tsunade notices anyway. She doesn't even bother to hide her smirk.

"You have horses here, but back at home, we have giant weasels!"

"And it's possible to ride them?"

"Well, it takes some practice, I guess…I wasn't able to do it for a really long time. But Sasuke-kun is really good at it."

"Sasuke seems to be good at everything."

"Yeah, he is."

In the middle of another quiet dinner, Hiashi puts down his cutlery with a soft clink. "Sakura," he says, his voice bringing her to attention. She straightens her back unconsciously and looks up at the king.

"Yes, Your Highness?"

"It is to my understanding that it's been nearly a year since you've been home."

Sakura blinks, surprised that he would even bring this up. "Yes," she agrees. "It's been nearly a year."

She was supposed to return home (with Neji, Hinata, Hiashi, and other important family members) two moons ago to celebrate her birthday, but due to the unforeseen incident where a dragon thought Neji was its new toy, the event was called off. Sakura had been disappointed, but she understood why she must stay with her husband. Now, it hardly even crosses her mind anymore.

Hiashi folds his hands on the table. "You should return. I'm sure your father misses you." For a moment, Sakura doesn't even comprehend what he's saying.

"You mean I can visit home?" She hastily shuts her mouth when she realizes that her jaw was hanging open very rudely.

The king picks up his fork and knife and resumes eating. "My visit has been long overdue as well," he says gruffly. "I sent a messenger this morning to alert your family. We will leave in seven days."

In her excitement, Sakura turns to Hinata and grins widely. Her sister-in-law smiles in return, much more reserved but just as genuine. Sakura returns to her food, much more enthusiastic than before, only vaguely aware of Neji sitting across from her and glancing at her with mild disapproval from time to time for forgetting her manners in the presence of the king. Hiashi doesn't seem to mind or even notice, and continues to eat.

Later that evening, when Neji and Sakura are in their room and already dressed in their nightgowns, Neji remarks, "I'm surprised His Highness did not scold you earlier."

Sakura knows exactly what he's talking about. "I don't think His Highness is that concerned about it?" She frowns when she sees just how upset Neji is over it. "But I won't do it again," she promises. "Sorry."

"It's not—no, that's not what I meant." Neji sighs and unties his hair. "I apologize. I was just raised differently from you."

She shakes her head. "But I live here now—I should follow your rules."

"You shouldn't." Neji sits on their bed and begins to brush his hair; a process that takes several minutes. Sometimes, Sakura just sits there and watches him—he has such beautiful hair. "I've never told you this before, but initially, His Highness did not think you fit to be my bride. But I had insisted."

"You…insisted?"

"I'm sure you know you have a reputation amongst the kingdoms. Boisterous and enthusiastic and sometimes difficult to hold down."

"Unmannered and graceless, then," Sakura rewords for him, not sure where this conversation is going.

He puts down his brush and turns to sit cross-legged on the bed, facing her. "But full of life." He smiles, just a little, and Sakura's heart skips a beat. "At that point, I had never even met you, but I already knew that I couldn't settle with anyone else. The very reason why I chose you was because I knew you were different from everything I had ever known. And now that you're here with me, all I've been doing is trying to stomp that light out of you, and make you just like me."

In this moment, Neji is the most unguarded Sakura has ever seen him. His hair drapes over his shoulders and his eyes are downcast; no longer a prince but merely an honest boy, just Hyuuga Neji who is talking to the girl of his dreams, carefully laying his heart out for her to see.

"Do you remember the day you agreed to marry me?" he asks quietly.

"How could I not?" It was the day everything changed. It was the day she took her fate and threw it in a whole new direction.

"You were in the library," Neji recalls, "with Sasuke. Playing Cat's Cradle."

Sakura smiles fondly at the memory. "Yes. And then I just blurted it out like an uneducated child."

His next words are said so softly and so tenderly that they physically make her heart ache. "That was the happiest day of my life." He reaches out and he takes her hand—he's cold. "Thank you. For saying yes."

Sakura is so moved by what he's said that she can't even formulate a proper response. This is the first time she's ever heard him say such heartfelt words—this is the first time he's ever vocally expressed how he felt about her. It's difficult for her to even fathom that while she was still so swept up in Sasuke, someone else was watching her, hoping against all logic that she'd turn and look at him.

Neji. What an incredible person.

The weight on their bed shifts as Sakura crawls on all fours towards him, until her forehead is nudging against his shoulder and he falls backwards against the pillows. She carefully lays down on him, her head on his chest, listening to his rapid heartbeat.

She's the one who makes him feel this way. She's the reason why he forgets how to breathe.

Neji moves with uncertainty, but his arms wrap securely around her—like he doesn't want to let her go, like he can't afford to let her go. She shifts until she's more comfortable, and they lay there like that, in a silence so warm and so accepting that Sakura's afraid she'll drown in it.

She wonders if Neji's the one who should be saying thanks.

"The stew that we have very frequently—I loathe it."

"I…was not aware of this. You have gone this entire year without saying anything?"

"It's His Highness's favorite—what can I possibly say?"

"I'll see if I can have something done about it."

"You don't have to, Neji! I just wanted you to know. I hate it. It makes me sick to my stomach."

"I said I'll have something done about it."

When the faint outline of her castle peeks over the horizon, Sakura does her best not to make her horse race towards it at full speed.

She married Neji in the summer. She spent winter in his kingdom, as well as spring, all through dragon hunting season, and past her birthday—summer has come and gone again, and now autumn has arrived, drowning her kingdom in beautiful reds and golds. Sakura can breathe in the smell of her home.

"Let's increase our speed," Neji says to the maids and servants around them, sensing Sakura's anticipation.

Memory has failed her this past year, but as they get closer and closer, Sakura can begin to remember the details, the tiny little things that makes home, home. The warm fireplace in the library. The vase she broke as a child, and Sasuke helped her hide the shards in a larger vase. (They're still there, to this day.) She remembers the large willow tree she always used to play under with Sasuke as a child—and then just escape to with Sasuke when she was older. She remembers Sasuke.

Sakura blinks. When did she even begin to forget Sasuke?

A small crowd is awaiting them at the towering doors, including her father. Sakura trips on the hem of her dress and nearly falls flat on her face in her haste to reach him. Her father takes her into his arms like she's still four years old—and for a moment, she really is only four years old. Just a daughter glad to see her father again.

Neji, Hiashi, Hinata, and everyone else approaches Sakura's father with much more caution and respect, for he is also a king. Sakura sees many familiar faces—the head chef, the maids—and, quiet and not too far from her father, Sasuke.

Sakura regards him for a moment, struck by the unfamiliar uncertainty. What does she do? What does she say?

He looks different. He's taller, his shoulders are broader, his jaw more defined—he's grown. Sasuke has definitely grown. He's not a boy anymore—he's a man.

A completely new Sasuke that Sakura has never seen, talked to, or felt.

She manages a weak smile, and he nods in acknowledgement before turning away.

A pit of dissatisfaction sits at the bottom of her stomach.

Pleasantries are exchanged between both kings, and Sakura stays close to Neji, close enough for their arms to be pressing together. They don't say anything to each other, but that's alright, because they spent the first few moons of their marriage in complete silence. It's a comfort to them now.

Not long after, they retire to their sleeping quarters for a little while before dinner. It seems to have gone without question that Neji will be sharing a room with Sakura, so she brings him through the corridors, around the corners, past the large vase with the remnants of a smaller vase inside it, and through every fleeting memory that she has of this place.

"The last time I was here, I was trying to win your hand in marriage," Neji recalls with a hint of nostalgia. "And now I am back as your husband."

"Back then, I never would have expected that things would turn out this way." Sakura pushes open the heavy doors of her room. Everything has been left untouched; nothing has changed. There isn't a single speck of dust anywhere. It's almost unbelievable that it's been a year since she last slept in that bed. "This is the only other room I have ever resided it, apart from yours."

"Ours," Neji corrects, gingerly stepping in after her, as if he shouldn't be here. "It's our room."

She turns to him, and smiles. "Then this is our room too."

"That's alright with you?"

Playfully nudging him with her shoulder, she asks, "It's been a year. Is that still a concern of yours?"

The uncomfortable rigidity of his posture finally relents, and the frown disappears from his features. He looks relieved, but still unsure of what to say, so Sakura moves to the bed, where the servants have already brought his belongings. She unpacks for him, telling him where he can put his things—and that he should keep some here for future visits, to really affirm that this is no longer just her room, but their room.

"You know, Neji," she continues offhandedly, "sometimes, you still look surprised that I'm even here. Like you don't know how I became your bride."

Neji comes up beside her and unpacks with her. "That's because it's true. I haven't the faintest idea. I still don't know what prompted you to marry me in the first place." He pauses momentarily, and then continues. "It is silly to think that anyone of royal status marries for love."

"You did, didn't you?"

He noticeably freezes up at this question.

"But you didn't." He treads around the subject, careful.

Being with Neji was difficult at first. Sometimes, he said or did things that Sakura wasn't comfortable with—things that should be normal for friends, let alone a prince and his princess. But now, though—even Sakura is surprised at how easily she can accept Neji's love. A quiet, tender love.

"I didn't," she agrees. She doesn't elaborate. He doesn't pry.

(Maybe she was made to be loved by him.)

"Horses are intimidating. I don't want to learn how to ride them."

"I'll be with you the entire time. Don't worry."

"But what if I fall? It's happened with giant weasels before—"

"Don't worry, Sakura. I'm right here. I'll help you up." Whinny. "See? She likes you."

She finds him in the library after dinner, organizing the books.

He was always like that—doing things without being asked, always knowing his duties and responsibilities even when no one tells him. Sakura has always admired that about him—he's quiet and a little temperamental, but never unreliable.

"You really don't take a day off, do you?" she asks, watching him from afar.

"How can I? There is no one in this castle who can do my job as well as I can." Sasuke turns around to look at her. Sakura thinks he's beautiful.

"You can always teach some of the maids," she suggests. "Have an apprentice or two."

He snorts. "The maids are incapable."

And you are impossible.

Silence stretches between them, and Sasuke tosses the book that's currently in his hand onto a nearby couch. A large distance separates them, but somehow, it feels like he's right in front of her.

"Have you been well, Princess?" His eyes are expectant, as if he's waiting for her to say something. Hoping for her to say something.

"I have," she answers, and watches that hope shatter. "And you?"

Sasuke turns away, picks up the book, and moves to shelve it away. "The same, of course. There is a never-ending list of things to do in this dreadfully large and empty castle."

She watches him work. It's something she's done countless times before—Sakura had been unconsciously enamored by Sasuke for years, after all, and took to watching him whenever she could—gathering the dishes, watering the garden, washing the floors. He moves with a grace that she could only dream of possessing.

"I've missed you," she says, quietly.

"You shouldn't have," he snaps.

Sakura is taken aback by his sudden brashness. "What's happened to you?"

"Nothing," he all but hisses. "I just—nothing."

Sasuke has always been a little unmannered, a little rough around the edges—but he hides it well. He has to, after all, because he works for the king. And even if that wasn't the case, he never spoke to Sakura the way he's speaking to her right now—he never dared hurt her, and especially not with his words.

But he's different now. He's lashing out in defense; he's raised the walls around him, and Sakura doesn't know what he's thinking anymore. He's never bothered to hide that from her. She could always read him like a book. Now, though…

Oh.

Not looking at her, Sasuke sorts through a stack of books that was on a table.

Oh.

He's…angry.

Angry about what?

"No one ever said you had to marry him." "But I have to. I have to."

"Do you love me?" "Sometimes, when my control slips."

"Princess." "How many times do I have to tell you? My name is Sakura."

It hits her like a thousand horses.

Sasuke is angry because she left him behind. He's angry because she's learned to live without him, but he hasn't learned to live without her.

Sasuke is angry because he still loves her, but she doesn't need him anymore.

The tears come unexpectedly, welling up in her eyes, fast and hot and impossible to hold back. She swallows the lump in her throat and takes a step back, nearly tripping over the hem of her dress. Her corset is too tight. She can't breathe.

She knows Sasuke hears her leave, her steps quick on the floor and the door clunking shut behind her. She doesn't care, because she knows he didn't look back at her—and even if he did, she would have run anyway, because she's hurt, she's humiliated—and she's angry too, at herself for thinking so naïvely that things will be okay. She ran away, but Sasuke had nowhere to go. She could find solace in Neji's arms, could forget the pain she left behind, but Sasuke had to live with it every day. He still does.

He wished her well the last time he saw her. He told her to be happy. But in the end, they're all human. In the end, she supposes he had hoped she'd choose him despite everything telling her otherwise.

Sakura feels awful. She feels absolutely awful for hurting Sasuke like this.

"We're in people's fairytales, aren't we? Princes and princesses in magical kingdoms and beautiful castles."

"Sometimes, I do not get the feeling that we're living in a fairytale."

"Me neither. But it'd be nice, wouldn't it? If we somehow got our happily-ever-after too."

Neji's hair is a dark brown, but when the sunlight hits it at the right angles, it's red.

Sakura only just realizes this, because they're sitting outside in the garden, the autumn breeze a little chilly, but the sun warm on their skin. She hesitates for just a moment before she reaches out to touch Neji's hair—it's soft and silky, attained only with meticulous brushing and long hours in the bath. He turns to her, eyes inquisitive, and she moves so she can sit behind him and run her hands through his hair, a deep, deep red.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"You really are a prince," she tells him. "From your blood, to mannerisms, and even how you look. You reek of loyalty."

"Thank you?" he says uncertainly.

She giggles. "It's a good thing."

He spends a lot of time bonding with Sakura's father over long, tedious games of chess, but he's still able to get away for long enough periods of time to be with Sakura. They're spending at least a moon here to make up for lost time; after all, a good relationship between the kings of two strong kingdoms is necessary to maintain peace.

Sakura is quiet as she, unbeknownst to Neji, braids his hair. It's always something she's wanted to do, but never got the chance to. They're just small braids—one here, one there—not very noticeable from a distance. She wonders what he'll say when he realizes what she's done.

"It's very nice here," Neji says. "I wouldn't mind if I came to live here instead."

"You always can. This is your home, too." A heartbeat. Then two. "Sasuke-kun's mad at me."

If Neji is surprised by the abrupt subject change, he doesn't show it. "Why is he mad?"

"Because…" Her fingers pause momentarily in his hair, unsure how to proceed. "Because I married you and left him behind."

"It was your duty. He knew that."

She shakes her head. "No, not that. I mean I left him behind." Sasuke had always accepted the fact that she would physically leave him, but not emotionally. In fact, neither of them had anticipated it.

Neji is quiet for a long while. "He loves you, doesn't he?"

"Yes," she admits hesitantly.

"And you love him."

"…Maybe." Despite the fact that Neji's back is facing her, it still feels like he's looking right through her. "No. I don't anymore." She smiles sadly. "We all outgrow childish fantasies eventually."

"That's not a childish fantasy, Sakura," Neji says firmly. "Don't ever think that it's a childish fantasy. You loved him, and that is a truth."

"And you're okay with that?"

"How would I benefit from holding it against you? Sasuke was before you knew me. I cannot blame you for that." He pauses. "Although, I did not like it at first."

She laughs. "You even asked for Sasuke-kun to stay here instead of going to your kingdom with me because you felt insecure."

"Of course I did," Neji retorts, akin to a child. "I am not a fool."

"No," she agrees affectionately. "You are not a fool." She pulls the red ribbon out of her hair and ties it into Neji's to secure the braid. And just in time, too, because he turns around to face her. She's startled by how serious his eyes are.

"You don't love him anymore," he echoes, as if to affirm it.

She shakes her head. "I don't."

She can hear the question at the tip of his tongue—then do you love me? But she knows he won't ask. Neji has never pried about her feelings, even though there are many things that he wants to know. She can tell; it's as plain as day. No matter how good you are at schooling your expressions, everything comes out through the eyes.

Sakura reaches out and takes Neji's hand, turning it over in her own, thinking of everything that is still in store for them. She traces the lines of his palm, her touch gentle. "Tsunade taught me how to read palms, once. This here is your life line."

Neji leans in closer to get a better look at his palm. "And what does mine say about me?"

"That you're careful and wary when it comes to relationships." She looks up at him. "Is that true?"

"I think that is true to some extent for any person. What do the other lines say?"

She traces another line. "This is the heart line. You see how it touches your life line? It means you get hurt easily." She pauses. "Is that true?"

With his free hand, Neji reaches out and brushes her hair out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. Sakura's heart flutters. "That, I think I must admit to."

"Really?" She tilts her head into his touch, just barely. "I couldn't tell."

"You are the last person I want to look weak in front of."

"That's not a weakness," she says. "That's human."

His thumb brushes her cheek. She closes her eyes.

They don't have time to bask in the moment because there is a shout from across the garden. They jump apart from each other—Sakura lets go of his hand, and his warmth disappears from her cheek. One of the maids is heading towards them in an unhurried pace, but the fact that she's here at all means that either Neji or Sakura is needed somewhere.

"Your Highness, Princess." The maid bows to them. "Both His Highnesses would like to see you in the drawing room." Even though she tries not to stare, her eyes linger for a moment on the braid and ribbon in Neji's hair. Sakura tries not to smile.

Neji clears his throat and stands up, brushing the grass from his clothes. "Alright. We will be there shortly." The maid bows again and hurries away. He turns towards Sakura, offering a hand to help her up. "Shall we go?"

She takes it and he pulls her to her feet. She can still feel his residue warmth on her cheek. Her heart does nervous little flips.

Sakura follows him back towards the castle, the sun still shining brightly overhead—and Neji's hair a deep, deep red.

"The forest out west is always the most beautiful in the autumn. We should go when we have the time."

"It is not dangerous?"

"Of course not! We don't have dragons or any other beasts that eat cows whole. The most dangerous creature around here is probably Naruto."

"…Naruto?"

"You'll meet him soon enough."

"We were wondering when you'd arrive!"

Unlike Hiashi, Sakura's father is much louder and more outspoken. When with family, he's just as quiet as Hiashi, but when he's in the company of others, he can easily become a boisterous, happy king. It's a good image to have, he's always told Sakura.

Only her father and Hiashi are in the drawing room, and there are two other armchairs prepared for Neji and Sakura. Both kings take notice of the braid and ribbon in Neji's hair, and say nothing. Sakura wonders if there's anyone who will.

"You wanted to speak with us?" Now Neji is calm and composed, showing none of that previous affection she had just seen. Truly the perfect prince.

Compared to Sakura's father, Hiashi doesn't have a trace of a smile on his face. It used to really intimidate Sakura, but now she knows that it's his default expression. He isn't angry or impatient or displeased—he just looks that way. "It has just come up in our conversation," he says, "that you two have been married for a year, and Sakura is still not bearing any children."

Neji noticeably freezes up in his seat. Sakura squeaks.

It should be natural that she should be bearing his children soon—what else is she for, after all? She is but a trophy wife and a human incubator.

But with Neji, it doesn't quite feel like that. It feels like more. She still doesn't know him as well as she knows Sasuke, but she's getting there—they're slowly getting there, step by step. Before Neji, Sakura had never thought much about marriage, but when she did, she accepted that likely would not marry someone she loved. Her marriage would be to ease political tension, to create friendship between kingdoms—but she was lucky. She was not married off to a man twice her age, or a vile king who makes her nauseous to even look at. She was married to Neji. And Neji is so much more than that.

Neji isn't just some business transaction.

"It is true Sakura is at the proper age to be a mother," Neji says, "but we are not yet ready. We hope you respect this."

Hiashi frowns. "You do not need love to create children," he reprimands.

"Sakura will be capable of bearing children for years to come; we have time. Additionally, you are still king, Father. Until you pass the crown onto me, children should not be a concern yet."

Sakura is as red as a tomato, unable to even say anything. She's seventeen—she hasn't given these things much thought yet.

"I would also like my Sakura to remain pure for a little while longer!" her father adds. "I'm sure you understand, Neji. She is my precious daughter, after all."

Her husband nods. "Certainly, Your Highness."

"…Don't tell me you've already tainted her, have you?"

"N-No! Of course not!"

"Please don't say such crude things," Hiashi snaps.

"Why not? It's a natural part of life—and you did the same to your very own wife several years ago—"

"That would be quite enough," Hiashi interrupts stiffly.

Neji stands to his feet, clearly as eager to leave the room as Sakura is. "Then if that is all…"

"Ah, yes." Sakura's father waves them off. "You may leave. Off you go, doing whatever it is you youngsters do nowadays. Just keep what we said in mind!"

Sakura and Neji quietly murmur their assents before exiting the room as quickly as possible. Sakura's cheeks are hot with embarrassment. She knew that she would have to bear Neji's children eventually, but to actually have it brought up to them…and by their fathers, no less…

"Please don't feel stressed about it," Neji says. "We won't do anything you don't want to do." When she looks at him, she notices that he's blushing almost as hard as she is. He can't meet her eyes; his gaze remains glued to the floor.

She plays with her fingers. "We won't do anything you don't want to do either."

"Okay."

Silence stretches between them.

"I-I think I'm going to study a bit!" she squeaks, taking a step back.

"Yes," Neji stammers. "I'm sure I'm needed somewhere as well."

They both take off in opposite directions, too embarrassed to look back.

"Sometimes, I feel akin to an animal when you keep touching my hair like that."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"Being belittled like a beast? Yes, I believe so."

"Neji, you don't have to be so sour all the time. I like your hair, so I'm going to touch it. Consider it being pampered."

Under the cloak of darkness, it's easy to act the way they're supposed to. For Sakura, it is infinitely more effortless to curl up close to Neji in bed than it is to even smile at him affectionately in broad daylight.

But, she soon comes to realize, that doesn't mean she doesn't want to.

She wants to hold his hand. She wants to sleep on his shoulder. She's Neji's wife and she doesn't want to just act the part, she wants to be the part. The stiffness that they have with each other, especially when they are in the company of others, is stifling.

Although she knows it's still too early, she wanders into the dining room in anticipation of dinner. It still won't be ready for another hour, but it still hasn't been long since she's come home; every nook and cranny of the castle is still novel to her.

To her surprise, her father is already at the table, a few documents spread out on the table in front of him. Sometimes, he works out here because he finds his office too cramped.

He looks up when he notices her presence. "Ah, Sakura! Fancy seeing you here."

She laughs at his reaction to seeing his daughter in his very own home. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to pull some strings for the heir of the throne," her father replies airily. Sakura's eyes widen. "The advisors have been badgering me about it since I'm getting old."

"An heir? Do you have someone in mind?" He never did have any children after Sakura since her mother died while giving birth to her, and he never remarried after that. As a girl, there was no way Sakura could have inherited the throne—it was something that only a son could do.

"I do," the king answers easily. "I always have."

"Really? Who?"

"You don't know? Sasuke, of course!"

Sakura blinks, slowly. "Sasuke-kun?" For a moment, she thinks he's joking. "But that's ridiculous, Father. Sasuke-kun doesn't have a single drop of noble blood in him."

"Which is what I've been fighting against for the past moon." Her father sighs, and Sakura finally sees how the years have worn against him like the ocean wears away rock. "I've talked to Sasuke about it—he's perfectly willing to inherit the crown. He's smart, hardworking, and capable. He would make a good king."

"I don't doubt that." She sits down beside him, a frown on her lips. She isn't quite sure how to feel about Sasuke being the king.

Her father puts down his quill. "I never did get a chance to talk to you alone since you returned. Have things been well?"

"They have. And you?"

He ignores her question. "Hiashi has been treating you well? And Neji?"

"Of course! Where is all this coming from?" She's always known that her father cared for her like a father should, but she can't ever recall a time when he openly expressed his worries. In fact, he used to be so busy that she only ever saw him during mealtimes. She supposes his workload hasn't decreased—but absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all. He's likely missed her as much as she missed him.

He sighs—a heavy sigh, the sigh of a man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. "You just seemed very reluctant to marry Neji and leave home. But you appear better now."

"I am better." She smiles in reassurance. "I'm growing to love it."

"And Neji too, I hope? You did not love him in the beginning."

"Yes," she says, more reluctant this time. "Little by little, I think." Love can be learned too, Tsunade once said to her. Sakura never really understood, until now. "So, is Sasuke-kun learning the necessities of being king?"

Her father accepts the change of subject. "Of course. He began his lessons several moons ago, even though the council still has not agreed to him being the heir yet."

"Is that where he is now? I haven't seen him lately—he's very busy nowadays, isn't he?"

Her father's expression is that of confusion and bewilderment. "He is, but not right now. His lessons have stopped for the time being because of his extra duties while the Hyuuga are visiting. He left to deliver a message for me a few days ago—did he not tell you?"

Sakura's stomach sinks, in a way it hasn't sank in a very long time. A mix of disappointment and betrayal—and maybe just a bit of hurt. "No," she says. "He didn't tell me." He always told her. Sasuke used to always tell her when he was leaving to deliver a message—and he used to always tell her when he would be back.

Used to.

Her father seems to sense the drop in her mood. "He will be back before you leave, so don't worry. I'm sure you two will straighten things out then."

"Yes," she agrees, even though she's not paying attention to their conversation anymore. "I hope so."

She doesn't know what she'll do if Sasuke remains angry with her for the rest of her life.

"Sakura…why are there braids in my hair?"

"W-Why do you think I would know?"

"Everyone else is terrified of me. Only you would dare to do such a thing. Additionally, this is your ribbon."

"Oh." Giggle. "Well, you have to admit, you look very pretty with them."

"Naruto!" Upon seeing her, the giant weasel grows much rowdier in his pen. Sakura laughs and unlocks the door, and ihe pounces on her, knocking her to the ground and licking her face. "Stop it, you're getting me all dirty!"

Normally, Sasuke takes Naruto with him on his messenger duties, but Naruto has been sick recently and not in his best health, so Sasuke decided to let him rest. Sakura can't even tell; the weasel is so energetic that he could run for an entire day straight.

Neji looks apprehensive. "That is your method of travel?"

She shoves Naruto off of her and manages to sit up, hay in her hair and stuck to her dress. "Maybe not as dignified as your horses, but every much as capable."

"I wasn't implying otherwise," Neji says hastily. "It's just that when you said giant weasels, I was not expecting…giant weasels."

"Imagine what I thought when I saw your horses." She wrinkles her nose. He looks indignant. "Sleek and antisocial and…bare. Horses are so bare." Naruto purrs when she runs her hand through his thick, orange fur. "Giant weasels are warm and fun. They're more than just transportation—they're friends, too." Sakura glances up at him. "Would you like to pet him?"

Neji is hesitant, but he gets on his knees beside Sakura to see Naruto eye to eye. Naruto sniffs this newcomer, and Sakura giggles at the way Neji flinches in surprise. After a moment, he reaches out cautiously and pats Naruto's head, once. The weasel purrs, and nudges against Neji's palm, wanting to be pet again.

Sakura grins. "Look, he likes you!"

"It would seem so." He continues to pet Naruto. "This is Sasuke's weasel?"

"Yeah. They were pretty much inseparable after they first met, even though Sasuke-kun always said he hates Naruto. What comes out of his mouth is usually the exact opposite of the truth."

"And right now, Sasuke is…?"

"Away. He has a message to deliver."

"Ah. Do you know when he'll return?"

"No. He didn't tell me this time." He didn't even tell me that he'd be leaving. Thinking about it makes her miserable, so she quickly changes the subject. "Let's go to the forest out west!"

Neji's hand stops moving in Naruto's fur. "Right now?"

"Why not? We have time, right?" Without waiting for him to answer, she stands up, half-heartedly brushing the hay off her dress and not getting even half of it. "Here. Try riding Naruto." She grabs Neji's hand and pulls him to his feet.

"I…" She's never seen him look so intimidated in his life. Hyuuga Neji: He can slay a dragon with his bare hands, but he's afraid to ride a giant weasel. "Is it safe?"

Sakura can't stop laughing. "Of course! You just have to make sure to hold onto his fur tight enough. I had to learn that the hard way." Naruto kneels obediently for Neji to straddle his back, Neji's movements cautious and wary. "Lock your knees in front of his hind legs. Make sure you get a good grip before he—" Thump. "…Stands up." Neji lies in the grass, momentarily stunned that he fell to the ground so easily. "Are you alright?" She helps him up. Now he has hay in his hair, too.

"Quite," he replies, miffed. She reaches out and brushes the hay out of his hair. "I don't recall riding horses being this difficult."

"Try again! You can't get everything on your first try, despite being a genius."

"I think I'd rather not." Neji and Naruto stare at each other, seemingly sharing a mutual understanding. Perhaps Neji was just never meant to ride him.

In the end, Neji rides his horse, and Sakura rides Naruto to the forest out west. The weather is nice today; chilly, but not too cold, and the skies are clear. Sakura breathes in the familiar air, the smell of crisp leaves and dewey grass. She didn't realize how much she missed this place.

The forest is an array of reds and oranges and golds. The image of leaves gently falling to the ground is akin to a fairytale. Sakura squeals as Naruto leaps delightedly through the leaves, kicking them up into the air. "Stop, Naruto! I'm going to fall if you do that." Naturally, the weasel pays her no heed, and within moments, she's unceremoniously dumped into a pile of crunchy leaves.

Gracefully, like the prince he is, Neji jumps off his horse and lands on the ground with gentle feet. He reaches his hand out to help Sakura up, but when she grasps it, she grins wickedly and yanks, pulling him down with her. He accidentally knees her stomach and the wind is knocked out of her lungs and she laughs, loudly, breathlessly, echoing in the trees.

"You hardly have the manners of a princess," Neji gasps, getting up on his knees.

"You knew that when you proposed to me," she teases. He glares at her, not unkindly, and plucks a leaf out of her hair. She smiles cheekily at him.

"I did," he agrees, the ghost of a smile reaching his lips as well. Sakura pushes her hair out of her eyes, vaguely aware of Naruto sniffing Neji's horse in her peripheral vision. The red in Neji's hair matches the forest perfectly, and as she looks at him like she's done a million times before, something clicks.

Neji blinks with snowy eyes, one season out of place, and she stretches up and kisses him.

She doesn't realize the severity of what she's done until she's pulled away, noticing Neji's wide-eyed gape. She blushes immediately, shrinking away from him. "Sorry," she sputters, "I didn't mean to—"

It had just felt so…natural? They've been married for more than a year, but have never kissed. It had never felt right to Sakura, and Neji never pushed. But then, it suddenly did feel right, and…

Actually, Sakura thinks, why did it even take her this long?

She's just about to apologize again for doing something so out of the ordinary when something in Neji breaks, and he jerks Sakura into his chest, his face pressed against her hair.

"Neji?" she cautions, her voice muffled against his clothes.

Her breath hitches in her throat. He's trembling.

Unexpected tears spring to her eyes, and her arms wrap around him tightly. There are a million things she wants to say—most of them being different variations of I'm sorry—but nothing comes out, so she and Neji remain like that for a very long time, clinging to each other as if desperately trying to keep each other from falling to pieces.

Neji is not a man of words—has never been a man of words—but he's full to the brim with emotions that he doesn't know how to express, and Sakura feels an entire galaxy thrumming beneath his skin. The steady beat of his heart against her ear, his trembling breaths in her hair, his familiar scent that she falls asleep to every single night. In a person that she initially didn't want anything to do with, she suddenly sees a myriad of colors, entire worlds of beauty that she's never noticed before.

Maybe I love you, she almost whispers, but decides against it—Neji doesn't deserve anymore uncertainties. When she says it, she has to mean it.

"Sorry," Neji mumbles. Sakura isn't sure exactly what he's apologizing for, but she has a feeling it's because he can't bring himself to let go of her. She doesn't want him to let go, though—this is a type of love, a type of security and stability that she's never been able to feel with Sasuke.

"Don't be," she says, quietly. "We're in this together, right?"

"Yeah," he agrees, sounding no less apologetic than he did before.

She pulls away—not completely, but enough to make Neji loosen his grip on her—and repeats, firmly this time, "We're in this together." And she honestly, truly believes it.

He smiles, soft and faint. "Yeah."

"Am I the only girl you've ever wanted to marry?"

"W-Well, I did want to marry Hinata as a child…"

"Ooh, scandalous! Shall I tell His Highness?"

"That was only a childish wish! In no way does it represent how I feel now!"

"Are you sure, Neji?"

"Yes! Why are you doubting me?"

"I don't know. Most likely because I enjoy seeing you struggle."

She's reading in the library when he enters—unknowing of her presence in there, she's sure, or else he wouldn't have come in at all.

She smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes. "Hi, Sasuke-kun. Father said you were back last night."

"Yes," Sasuke replies, stiffly. The library is neat and tidy today, which means that he probably came in here to read or study. Sasuke never had any formal lessons on how to read (until recently, Sakura supposes, what with his training and all), but she used to teach him a little bit here and there. "How have you been, Princess?"

"My name is Sakura," she chastises softly, and for a moment, Sasuke freezes.

"How have you been, Princess?" he repeats, and Sakura feels a piece of her heart break.

"Good," she replies. "And you?"

"The same as always."

"Really?" She straightens up from her curled up position on the warm couch, and closes her book, not even bothering to bookmark the page. "You're not busy with other things…like training to be king, maybe?"

Sasuke browses the bookshelves, not even batting an eyelash. "There's that, too."

The distance between them couldn't be more obvious. "Were you ever planning to tell me?"

"No."

She flinches at his brashness. "Oh."

"His Highness would have told you regardless. You did not need me to know of this news."

"Well," she forces a smile, "you'll be a great king. I know it."

"Thank you, Princess."

Silence falls between them, and Sasuke picks a book from the bookshelf. He sits in a couch, one that is several feet away from her, cracks the book open, and begins reading. From her distance and angle, Sakura can't see what the book is about.

How can she feel so achingly lonely when the person she's missing is right here?

"What are you reading?" she asks. "I'm sure you've gotten a lot better since I last saw you—can you read to me?"

"You can read perfectly fine on your own. And I'm sure this is not something you would be interested in."

"What…" It shakes for a moment in the pit of her stomach, then rises into her throat, and then it explodes. "What is your problem?" Sasuke looks up at her, eyes black at night, and does not speak. "I know you're angry, Sasuke-kun, but now you're just throwing a tantrum!"

"Am I not entitled to a tantrum?" he snaps. "Once I'm king, there will be people watching me left and right if I do so much as breathe out of sync."

"You make being king sound like the worst thing in the world!"

"Because it is!" Sasuke shouts. Sakura's eyes widen, shell-shocked because she's never heard him raise his voice before, let alone at her. "Don't you dare think that ruling a kingdom is fun, Sakura, because it's not."

"I-I never said it was," she stammers. She, of all people, should know the chains that tie the royalty down. "You could have said no if you didn't want to be king, though. Father would have looked for someone else." Who is this? This can't possibly be the Sasuke she's known for years and years. Sasuke and his kind eyes, his soft spoken voice and quiet consideration for those around him—this is not him.

He scowls, and looks away from her. "And had I not accepted, then what would happen? I would remain this castle's servant until the day I die."

"Well, if you chose this, then don't complain!" she screams, finding it difficult to hold back her tears. Her voice is already shaking.

But she knows what he means. She's always understood what Sasuke means, even if he doesn't say it out loud. It doesn't matter which path he chooses—he could serve this castle until his last breath escapes his lips, or he could be king—he still won't have her. And because of that, he will be miserable either way.

It shatters Sakura to see that he still thinks that way. But maybe this has always been different for the both of them.

To Sakura, Sasuke was the servant boy who made her laugh and her heart flutter. He was the sparkle in her seemingly dull and restrained life, and she loved him for that. But to Sasuke, Sakura was the one thing he's ever known. She was the one he served—she was his purpose, his reason for breathing. His feelings for her never had to manifest; she just had to stay for him. Sakura loved Sasuke and Sasuke loved Sakura, but Sakura realizes right then that she overlooked something that might have been very, very important.

No matter how much she thought it, she never truly needed Sasuke. But down to his very roots, to his very bones, Sasuke needed her.

Sakura swallows and takes a deep breath, willing herself not to cry. She's now allowed to cry when he's hurting so much more than she is. "Sasuke-kun, did you know? Neji's hair is brown, but when the sun shines on it at the right angle, it's red."

"I don't want to talk about him." Sasuke sounds weary, defeated.

"It doesn't seem like you want to talk to me at all anymore," she says, sadly.

"That's not entirely true."

"But it's true enough." She hugs her knees to her chest and rests her chin on them. She stares at Sasuke, just a few feet away from her and tries to think of a way to make him feel better. She can't.

"I really did love you, you know," she says quietly.

"I know."

"You're going to make a great king."

"I know."

"Sakura? Are you alright? What's wrong?"

"It's n-nothing…"

"You're crying. Don't tell me that's nothing."

"I just…Sasuke-kun…"

Sigh. "Come here." Warmth. A breath. A heartbeat. Then two. "Better?"

"Yes. Thank you."

Sakura's father is as talkative as usual all throughout dinner, but she doesn't say a word. She's sure everyone notices this, but despite that, no one mentions anything.

Her mind is still swimming with Sasuke. The truth is, she misses him. She misses the person she could whisper secrets to in the middle of the night, the person she could be improper around, the one person who made her forget her status. She misses his black hair and even blacker eyes. The way he always tied her corsets with ease and familiarity, never too loose and never too tight. She finds that she misses him just as much, or even more than when she first married Neji and moved away.

But she has to let go, doesn't she? She can't be selfish right now—not when Sasuke is hurting so much more than her.

"Do you want to talk?" Neji asks later that evening, when they've finally retired back to their room. Sakura is in her nightgown and sitting cross-legged on the bed, deep in thought. Or maybe just stagnant. Maybe just numb.

"Sasuke-kun doesn't want to talk about you, so I'm sure you don't want to talk about Sasuke-kun."

"It doesn't matter what I want right now," Neji says airily, pulling out the tie in his hair and running his fingers through it, massaging his scalp. "If you need to talk, I will be here to listen." He crawls onto the bed, and she beckons him until he's sitting with his back facing her.

"I'm going to braid your hair," she says. "Is that alright?"

He noticeably bristles at this comment, but stays still. "Well, at least you warned me this time."

She gathers his hair into three large sections, deciding to make a large braid this time. They're both silent until she's nearly done, and then she speaks.

"Just because I don't love Sasuke-kun anymore doesn't mean that he's not important to me. He's been there all my life and to imagine him not there now…" She pauses, and ties a red silk ribbon to secure the braid. "Have you ever wanted very badly to be with someone, but couldn't, and not for reasons such as distance? I'm not sure if—"

"Distance of the heart," Neji supplies. "I know. A person can be there with you physically, but that does not necessarily mean that they are truly there with you."

"You know how it feels, don't you?" she teases a little.

"Yes."

"Sorry. That's not something to joke about."

"That's alright." Neji turns slightly so she can see his face, and she notices the tiny quirk of his lips. "You can always joke about something that is no longer true."

"Mm." She reaches over to the bedside table to grab the handheld mirror. "What do you think?" She holds it in front of Neji, and he cautiously pulls at the thick braid to see it better.

"Truthfully?" He sighs. "Are you really my princess, and I your prince? Is it not the other way around?"

Sakura gasps, scandalized, and knocks the mirror out of his hand. "Neji!"

When he laughs, she completely forgets how to breathe. "I'm joking, Sakura. Your beauty is unparalleled; I do not even come close." The smile only lingers on his lips for a moment longer, before it fades. "I think Sasuke needs some time. He will not keep you out forever—one day, he will be ready. You just have to wait."

Sakura nods, unsure if there's anything else to say. She hasn't even told Neji the whole story—but she supposes he doesn't need it. Neji does more with snippets than some people do with the entire picture and then some.

"Neji," she says as he reaches back and unties the ribbon. His hair falls free, and he turns so he faces her. You're beautiful, she almost blurts out. Instead she says, cautiously, shyly, "I…I love you?"

Neji's eyes widen by a fraction, but otherwise, he shows no sign of reaction. Then his features soften, so soft she's at a loss for what to do, and he leans forward, albeit hesitantly, and presses his lips to her forehead. "Thank you," he whispers against her skin.

"If you say that again," she warns him, "I'm going to smack you."

He chuckles, his forehead pressing against hers. "Alright."

Neji blows out the candle and they get underneath the covers, huddling closer for warmth. Her face is pressed into the crook of his shoulder, and soundlessly, she mouths against the fabric of his tunic the million thank yous that she'll never be able to say out loud—the thank yous that she'll never be done saying.

Thank you for being tolerant of Sasuke-kun. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for waiting through the worst to see the best.

"I know what you're thinking," Neji murmurs sleepily into her hair. "Don't think it."

Her smile is involuntary. "Then you better not think it either."

"I won't."

"Okay."

"Goodnight, Sakura."

"Goodnight."

la gaudière: n. the glint of goodness inside people, which you can only find by sloshing them back and forth in your mind until everything dark and grey and common falls away, leaving behind a constellation at the bottom of the pan—a rare element trapped in exposed bedrock, washed there by a storm somewhere upstream.

— — —

A/N: I was actually, I don't know, very excited about this oneshot? I rarely gush and I don't think this is a particular masterpiece amongst my other works but as little as I say it, I really love your feedback, especially if it's thought out. So just, I don't know. Thanks. For everything. I've been in this fandom for years—and I took a break of almost two years—but some of you are still here, and to me, that is extraordinary.