Note: I'm sorry for the slow update! I didn't think this story would be as well-received as it was and I basically ended up in a state of "well shit." Anyhow, thank you all for your amazing comments. I found them very helpful – so if I address your disagreements with my plot directly in the story, please don't be offended!
And: I was a little apprehensive about including a scene focalized through Sasuke because I feel like it takes the focus away from Sakura buuuut. I don't know. I'm hoping it can indirectly shed some light on Sakura's current mindset. Let me know what you think! This chapter is a little more of a transitional piece sooo yeah. :D
Warnings: post-canon; repentant!Sasuke; sad!Sakura
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

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He finds himself impossibly graceless in her presence. He repeats his three chosen words – I fucked up – and finds the bitter taste of failure on his tongue.

Really? he wonders. That's what you went with?

"Where's Sakura-chan?" Naruto asks, rubbing his eyes. Sasuke clenches his jaw and Naruto hears everything from his silence. He tries to smile. "She…" He trails off, looking towards the trees. "She'll come around eventually," Naruto says hopefully. When he gets no reply, Naruto simply stretches. "Well, I might as well start my shift."

Sasuke nods and lies down, staring up at the darkened sky, suddenly thoughtful.

He commends her for being strong enough to face him. She's more composed in his presence than she thinks she is. He sees the way she trembles – how can he not? – but he also sees the way she hardens her heart. Her fists will clench and her shoulders will stiffen. She'll stand there, tense, and looking as though she's waiting for him to attack, but despite the fear, she stays.

So Sasuke hangs back. He doesn't avoid her because he's come to learn that ignoring an issue will do nothing, but he doesn't push her, because he's also learnt that too much trying can just unravel all the progress you've ever made. Instead, he keeps his distance when she's around so she won't have to feel like she needs to protect herself. He talks to her minimally and tries not to make any physical contact with her. The only reason he tried tonight was because the overwhelming guilt was becoming too much.

He used to be her hero. She loved him. He was everything. Her prince, her saviour, her future. Maybe this was her fault. Maybe she idealized him too much and when he fell from that pedestal she all but forced him onto, she simply couldn't handle her dreams being torn apart. Maybe he was the victim of her pining and wishing. But no, that's not the case. Sasuke remembers the day that haunts her clearly. Despite how deeply deranged he might've been at the time, he remembers everything. He remembers the joy of killing Danzou, the frustration he felt by the loss of Karin – then just an asset in his mind, the anger he felt when Sakura pulled a kunai on him.

Then, he wanted to punish her.

She simply wasn't allowed to turn on him after all the promises she'd ever made to him. Who did she think she was? He remembered the sheer rage running through his veins at her daring to betray him and how badly he wanted to hurt her. At the time, Sasuke fully intended to murder her and now that was coming back to haunt him.

He thinks about his past and his present and his future, and he thinks about the sacrifices Itachi made for him.

This isn't the life you're supposed to have, he tells himself when Sakura shies away from his presence. This isn't how things are supposed to be.

So he tries to fix his destroyed relationship with Sakura because he's smart enough to recognize that helping her recover is a stepping stone in his own repentance. He'll reduce himself to kindness and apologies because, in the end, this is Sakura.

Sakura, the girl who once upon a time, he would have given his life for – who he would still give his life for.

Sakura, who he wants to help heal.

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They carry their mission out with few words and upon returning to the village, Sakura heads to the hospital to find some sort of solace. She stumbles into the E.R. and sifts through files, not quite sifting through files at all.

Sakura tries to scold herself for her behaviour the other night with Sasuke – for crying. The words are the same as they always are because she's had this conversation with herself many, many times but never seems to heed results.

She points out the obvious: You're a ninja. You know violence. You know pain. How is this different?

How is this different? Sakura almost scoffs at the idea. How can this not be different? This is Sasuke. This isn't some faceless missing-nin and this isn't a crazed twelve-year-old Gaara. This is Sasuke in her nightmares, ready and so willing to end her life. How can you just put Sasuke on the same level as the typical everyday violence of being a ninja?

It's not about the action. It's about the person that was behind it. It's about seeing how far he'd fallen – how willing he was to kill her.

Sakura doesn't like the way she acts and she knows that there are a number of ways she could act:

She could be angry. She could punch him and yell at him and punch him some more until Naruto pulls her away because, in a twisted act of repentance, Sasuke won't fight back. He won't hit her or block. His arms will hang limply at his sides and he'll only flinch at every assault. He'll take her anger, accept it and consume it and he won't do anything until finally, she's spent – until finally, there's nothing to do but to cry and hold him and do something rash like forgive him.

Or she could be overly kind. She could be graceful and have the heart to forgive him right away. She can encompass all the objectivity she thinks she has and give Sasuke the "well, you weren't completely yourself" and then do something as stupid as pretend nothing happened and coo the Sasuke-kuns and smile at him and fawn over him like a twelve-year-old girl all over again. She could welcome him back into her life with ease and maybe even fall back in love like the simpering idiot she remembers once being.

Or she could continue the way she's been going and react like the traumatized little girl she is, barely staying composed in his presence.

Because that's what she is. She's traumatized. There's no glorifying it, no romanticizing it, no mocking it. Sasuke tried to kill her and try as she may, she can find absolutely no joy in being in his presence.

You'd think she can hide her fear, but she can't. It's not like it's voluntary. She doesn't want to tremble the way she does, and as much as she tries not to, she's not strong enough.

"Sakura?"

She looks up from the patient file she isn't reading. Tsunade stares at her curiously. "Don't you have a mission?" her master asks.

"Just got back," Sakura explains.

"Success?"

Sakura smiles at her. "Mission details are confidential."

Tsunade rolls her eyes and takes the file from Sakura's hands. "That is not how you speak to the former Hokage, young lady." She closes the blue binder and blocks Sakura from grabbing it back or taking another one. "You need to go home," she explains. Any traces of humor fade from Tsunade's ever young face as she puts the file down and rests both hands on Sakura's shoulders. Tsunade doesn't miss the tension that rises. "Were you with the boys?"

"Yes."

Sakura knows that Tsunade knows why she came. Who but her master could have taught her the art of avoiding healing yourself through healing others?

Tsunade merely sighs. Her arms fall limply to her sides and she puts her hands in the pockets of her lab coat. "Do you need me to write you another prescription, Sakura?"

"No."

But Tsunade still takes out the notepad to prescribe Sakura a stronger brand of sleeping pills. When she hands Sakura the paper, the girl takes it wordlessly. Sakura turns on her heel, ready to silently walk away, but Tsunade can't help herself: "The nightmares go away."

She watches the way Sakura stiffens and her eyes grow wide. "What?" Her voice is small.

Tsunade smiles sadly. Part of her wants to hug Sakura, but she stays still. "They go away," she repeats. She looks away and thinks back to the nightmares she used to have about the love of her life and death and blood.

Tsunade, one of the greatest kunoichi of them all, had her own encounter with an everlasting trauma, but Sakura almost scoffs because that took her master decades to recover from.

The prescription crumples in her hand. "I don't know what you're talking about," Sakura mumbles before walking away.

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She goes straight to the pharmacy, grateful for Tsunade's perception and prescription. She walks home languidly, now finally feeling the toll of the mission combined with the physical stress that her psychological stress was somehow manifesting.

I will go to sleep, she decides, and I will forget. I'm fine.

She repeats it to herself over and over: I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine.

Sakura maintains the mantra, prepping herself for a day of training with Naruto and Sasuke that she promised she'd attend, and is so busy deluding herself into thinking that she's fine that she doesn't notice Sasuke standing at her doorstep until she's a few yards away from him.

She freezes.

"H—hello," she says, eager to pretend his so-called apology never happened.

He doesn't waste time: "Can we talk?"

Sakura swallows thickly. Can they? She nods. This time, she promises, I will stay composed. Her muscles tighten uncomfortably as she tries to stifle any trembling and she clenches her jaw as she wills herself not to cry again. I can do this.

I can do this.

tbc