Dedication: m00kie! (If she's even still around sobs) Because she's the one who fueled my NejiSaku all those years ago, but I never truly adored, appreciated, and passionately loved this pairing up until these recent months. FORGIVE ME.
what are you, scared?
For people who are being trained to kill for a career, Sakura thinks, they must be the most immature of their generation.
They are thirteen and still excited by the smallest of things. Things that seem normal for civilians—free time, peace, regularly attending parties—are so difficult to come by for them that when the opportunity does arise, they go all out. Sakura doesn't deny that she goes overboard decorating for their Christmas party; she and Ino form a temporary truce to make the entire place sparkling and silver and beautiful, making sure that everyone brought something to eat for the potluck dinner. (It is that evening that she learns that shinobi make terrible cooks—it's why everyone lives off of ramen and soldier pills. In the end, they all order takeout from Ichiraku.)
Kiba and Ino scheme and hang up the mistletoe when it's almost midnight, when no one is paying attention to them. They make an unexpectedly fearsome pair—Sakura never wants to be left alone with them. And when things are like this, it's almost perfect—everyone is here, all of their friends and teachers—except, of course, one person is missing.
Sakura wonders how Sasuke is spending his Christmas this year.
"Sakura," Ino emphasizes, beckoning her over where everyone is gathered. "C'mon, we're taking a group photo!"
"Oh! Sorry, I didn't notice." She shakes her head, frees her thoughts of Sasuke—just for today, just for tonight. It's her first Christmas as a kunoichi and there are so many people that she cares about who are still here—she shouldn't let Sasuke get her down.
She poses for the camera and smiles brightly, deciding to let Naruto go this one time for putting his arm around her shoulders.
The party is dwindling to a close a little after midnight, because despite everything, they are still children and they need their sleep. Sakura does her best not to yawn every two minutes, but it's proving difficult—and as everyone makes their way out of the classroom (used as the location for the party for nostalgia's sake), Sakura rubs her drooping eyes.
And then Ino screams.
Everyone whips around, the teachers already with their kunai out—but Ino is pointing directly at Sakura.
"What?" Sakura says, now wide awake.
Ino's expression turns into that of triumph. "Look above you."
Sakura does. She's standing underneath the doorway—right underneath the mistletoe. She turns to look around her, to see who's stuck underneath the doorway with her—
Fighting with Zabusa wasn't nearly as frightening as it is to see that it's none other than Hyuuga Neji.
She and Neji step away from each other simultaneously, Sakura in fear and Neji in pure shock, and everyone laughs.
"Funny, Ino," she says, rolling her eyes. "I'm not going to kiss him."
"Ouch. You hear that, Neji?" Kiba shouts. "She doesn't want to kiss you!" If Sakura looks closely, she thinks can see one of Neji's temples throbbing.
Ino begins to clap in a slow rhythm, chanting kiss, kiss, kiss. Mortification washes over Sakura as people join in—kiss, kiss, kiss!—and she glances at Neji. There are people on either side of the door, all of them chanting and clapping—there's no escape. It seems like Neji notices this as well.
Sakura swallows, but finds her feet unable to move. It wasn't supposed to be Neji—it was never supposed to be Neji. It was supposed to be Sasuke.
Neji clears his throat and steps forward, leaning down and pecking her on the cheek. Sakura goes lightheaded from anxiety.
"What the hell, man!" Kiba accuses. "You're supposed to kiss her properly!"
"That was proper, you imbecile," Neji grinds out.
"That was wimpy, was what it was!"
"Neji!" Gai screeches at the top of his lungs. Sakura flinches. "Are you not going to treat a lady the way she should be treated?"
"I hate you," Neji hisses under his breath the exact same moment Sakura thinks it. "I hate all of you." Everyone seems to be closing in on them (and it's only now Sakura wishes she paid more attention in that class about strategic escape, because she's sure it would be useful right about now) and she and Neji take a step back, managing to bump into each other.
It's her first kiss. She's going to lose her first kiss over something stupid like this.
"I'm sorry that everyone sucks," she whispers to him meekly. He glares down at her. Okay. Sorry I suck too, I guess.
A moment later, Neji launches off his feet and leaps into the air with a burst of chakra. Sakura gapes as he flies over their crowd of friends and manages to escape into the hallway. He is just about to calmly walk away when Gai intercepts him at the speed of light, holding him in a tight headlock.
"What you're being right now, Neji, is very rude!"
Neji remains calm in his teacher's grip. "Sensei, neither of us want this. Let me go."
"How could you say that?" Lee protests. "Do you not see Sakura-san's eyes shining with tears? You've betrayed her love!"
Sakura wants to curl into a ball and die. She doesn't suppose that Neji will be able to successfully escape if she quietly roots for him, does she?
She finds Neji being placed in front of her again as Gai puts him down like a misbehaved child. "Now, do it properly, or you'll be doing D-rank missions for a week."
Neji stands stiff as a board.
Okay, whatever. Whatever. She might as well get this over with. Then she can pretend she doesn't know Neji and they can continue on with their lives.
She stands on her tiptoes, just tall enough to reach him properly, and quickly presses her lips against his for a brief moment.
The entire room explodes.
Sakura is as red as a tomato (the tomatoes that he loves so much), and Neji as white as a sheet.
"Sorry," she says again, and then she flees, forcefully pushing herself through the crowd, out of the academy and back home, completely afraid that he'll follow her and hunt her down the entire way.
She's always wanted to tell their kids that her first kiss ever was with their daddy. Now that'll never happen.
everyone's making their own way
It is winter of her fourteenth year when she heads to the hospital for her first ever shift.
She's nervous—Tsunade is busy actually being Hokage today, so Shizune has the liberty of supervising her—and while Sakura is thankful for the guidance, it doesn't keep her jitters away. Everyone has high hopes for her; Tsunade has said several times that her chakra control is flawless, and she has every single qualification to be a stellar medic. And yet…
And yet, she's afraid. She supposes this is normal, a simple rite of growing up, but still. She just wants more confidence in herself. All she's ever wanted is to look at herself in the mirror and not struggle to find something good in the painfully ordinary girl staring right back at her.
She diagnoses her patients out loud, watching Shizune nod in approval out of the corner of her eye. Even as a medic, she must be able to treat civilians, for that is the most basic necessity. With them, she's not allowed to use medical jutsu—she prescribes medication and performs civilian procedures. She used to think they were easy compared to jutsu—she was very wrong.
In the afternoon, she's assigned shinobi patients.
Her very first patient, who is as frightening as first patients come, is Hyuuga Neji.
The most she has ever interacted with him was last Christmas when they were forced to kiss. Apart from that, she has rarely spoken to him, although she saw him often, considering how many times she manages to bump into his team. (This, however, she believes to be more of Lee's and less of Neji's doing.)
"Hi, Neji!" she greets him cheerfully with her clipboard in hand, even though she's actually shaking on the inside. Of all of possible shinobi she could have started with, it has to be the Hyuuga prodigy who probably thinks she's lacking in more ways that even she sees in herself.
He nods to her, expressionless. "Hi, Sakura. Are you…?"
"I'm your medic for today, yes, if you don't mind. Today is the first day of my internship. If you're worried, Shizune-san is supervising me, and if you're still uncomfortable, you can ask her to treat you instead…" She shifts her weight from foot to foot, gripping the clipboard so tightly in her hands that her knuckles go white.
"It's okay. We all start somewhere." Neji holds out his hand and she sees bruising and swelling in three of his fingers. "I got injured on my mission this morning."
Sakura sets down her clipboard and gingerly takes his hand in hers, pressing gently on injured fingers. Neji keeps his frowning and flinching to a minimum. "They seem broken. What happened?"
For a moment, he is hesitant to answer. "Lee suddenly shouted something about squirrels and I…was caught off guard, and fell out of my tree."
She does her best not to raise her eyebrows too much at him. (Shizune is nowhere near as kind though, considering the quiet snickers from the back of the room.) "I see. Well, better broken fingers than a broken nose, wouldn't you say?"
Neji bristles at the thought. "Yes."
Sakura closes her eyes and remembers the steps to healing broken bones: feeling where all the fragments are with her chakra before moving the pieces back together, reviving cells, easing the bruising. This is the first time she's tried it on anything but dead or almost dead animals, so she really hopes that Neji doesn't end up with deformed fingers, or else the weight of destroying the Hyuuga clan's prodigy will be all on her.
"Relax," he says when he notices her imperceptibly shaking hands. "If medics don't stay calm, they could make a fatal mistake."
Well, that definitely helps with her nerves.
"Sorry," she mutters, her concentration now solely on her task at hand, staring at Neji's dark and bruising skin that is normally porcelain and as white as snow. Her hands glow green, and she sets to work, going ten times slower than an experienced medic would.
"Tenten really looks up to Tsunade-sama," Neji tells her a minute later. "For a while, she wanted to be a medic as well—but after studying a few introductory scrolls on it, she gave up." A small wry smile meets his lips.
"I don't blame her," Sakura replies, although she has no idea why Neji is telling her this. "It's hard."
"So," he turns to look at something to his right, "it is alright to be scared. Just—don't be scared when you're healing me. Please." His voice sounds strained. Well, he can't be blamed—no one would want to lose their fingers for a stupid reason like this.
Sakura doesn't respond to him; she's too busy double-checking everything. The swelling and bruising has disappeared already and she's doing a final scan of the bones—perfect. She stands up straight, suddenly noticing the thin layer of perspiration on her forehead. "All done," she says with a smile.
"Really?" He turns his hand over and flexes his fingers—but doesn't get too much time to inspect them, because she aims a punch straight for his face. He catches her fist in his newly healed hand—and his eyes widen by a fraction upon discovering that there is no more pain.
She grins, feeling like she can bring an army back to life. "Really."
Neji flexes his fingers again. "Today is your first day?"
A faint smirk ghosts across his lips. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you'd go far." He hops off of the examination bed and pats her shoulder. "Thank you."
After the door closes behind him, Sakura turns to Shizune. "Was that a compliment, or…?"
The older woman shakes her head. "I have no clue."
the possibility of anything if you just stop hoping for nothing
Another mission, another failure. Sakura doesn't mind falling short sometimes because that's how anyone grows, but she hates it when it has to do with Sasuke.
She's starting to think that maybe—maybe, he'll never come back. Maybe he was never meant to. Maybe Sasuke wasn't made for Konoha—maybe he wasn't made for laughter or faith or so much love that he drowns in it. Maybe she's waiting for something that will never happen even long after she's dead.
She bites her lip, determined to at least keep her tears in until she gets home where there will be no one to see her.
She steps through the village gates, tired and weary and empty and numb and she hates it, she hates that Sasuke always brings her down. Sakura wants to be happy, she wants to find herself, she wants her happiness to depend on no one but herself but Sasuke will always be there, gripping her heart in an iron hold and she will never be able to break free.
Kakashi, Naruto and Sai are quiet beside her. The sun is just peeking over the horizon—the start of a new day. Genma and Kotetsu greet them and sign them back into the village, sensing the team's solemn mood and not daring to smile.
At the same time, another team approaches the gates to leave for their mission. Gai shouts boisterously and dashes ahead to slap Kakashi hard on the back, and (through some miracle, in Sakura's honest opinion) Kakashi feigns cheerfulness as he exchanges words of rivalry with the other jounin.
"Sakura-san!" Lee proclaims. "How are you this fine morning?"
"I'm fine," she says, managing a weak smile. "Just tired." Lee continues to say things that she has long since learned to tune out, and she thinks about showering and crying in bed once she gets home. She is already fifteen, but still so, so weak.
Neji grabs Lee by the scruff of his neck and plucks him out of Sakura's reach. "Forgive him," he tells her. "He has never been good with social cues."
"Don't worry," she says, although all she wants to do is drop the manners and pleasantries. "He can't be any worse than Sai."
He smirks. "I wonder." And Sakura's eyes widen, because for a moment, she thought she saw—
(Dark eyes, midnight instead of cloudy, hair short and wild instead of long and elegant—a glimpse of a person she thought she knew, was so sure she knew—)
And then it's gone, and she wonders if it was ever there in the first place.
"Is something the matter?" Neji asks, and Sakura wonders why, for a frantic heartbeat of a surreal moment, she thought he was Sasuke.
She shakes her head. "Nothing."
Neji pushes no further because Neji draws lines around himself and strictly keeps within them, but she wonders if she can see a gleam of curiosity in those pale eyes of his. He steps away when his teammates call him, and gives her a small wave goodbye before turning and going after them. Sakura's eyes follow him until Naruto claps her hard on the back, all smiles and laughter again and asking if she'd be kind enough to treat him to a ramen breakfast. She would normally say yes, but today, she needs time to herself—she needs time to find herself, to remind herself that there is more to life than Sasuke, there is more to success than bringing home that broken shell of a boy. And for a moment, she believes it—and for the strangest reason, she thinks of Neji.
Maybe. That's a scary word. Because maybe, everything will fall apart.
But it's also a beautiful word.
Because maybe it won't.
in another lifetime
"It's so"—her teeth are chattering loud enough to lead a marching band—"cold."
"I'm not sure what else you were expecting from the Lightening Country," Neji says offhandedly—but he's shivering too, even with his cloak wrapped around him, huddling as close as he physically can to the fire without burning himself.
They're in a deep and narrow cave, but it helps little when there is practically a blizzard outside. It doesn't matter how many layers she wears; clothes from the Fire Country will never be able to prepare anyone for a real winter. It's already March, but this far north, it feels like they're still in the middle of December.
It's her birthday soon. She'll be sixteen.
(Nearly four years, and Sasuke has yet to come home.)
"This is my first time this far north," she says, in attempt to distract herself from not being able to feel her toes. "I've heard stories, but I didn't think it'd be this bad."
"I think it's rather refreshing."
"Even if we get snow in Konoha, it's never like this." Neji is staring idly out the mouth of the cave. "This kind of weather is freeing."
And this is the first time that Sakura realizes, Neji's eyes are as white as snow.
"Can I ask?" she says quietly. "About your clan." She only remembers fragments of several years ago, snippets of conversation he shared with Hinata during the chuunin exam.
For a moment, she thinks he's decided to ignore her. And then: "I am bound. That is all." His voice is stiff.
"You don't like it?"
"Do you like being restricted and held back?"
She shrinks away, feeling foolish. "No, I guess not." She had always thought that it was an honor to protect one's own kin, but she supposes not everyone sees it that way. Sakura doesn't know what it's like to belong to a clan, or the pride of having special blood run in her veins—she comes from a civilian family, after all.
It's quiet after that, and Sakura remembers why she used to be terrified of Neji, once upon a time. She isn't so much anymore (several meetings in the hospital when she's seen him at his weakest tend to do that for anyone), but that doesn't mean that he isn't still frigid and difficult to warm up to. But he'll warm up one day, she thinks. Everyone does, especially in their line of work. A person can't kill for a living and not have someone to lean on.
"The first time I felt free," she tells him, voice almost inaudible over the howling of the wind, "was when Tsunade-sama took me in as her apprentice. It was the first thing I ever did for myself, and I finally felt in control of my life. When was the first time you felt free?"
"I haven't," he says, painfully quick and brutally honest. "I've never felt free."
She looks at him, the reds and oranges of the flames dancing against his skin, reflecting in his eyes. Eyes that can be any color depending on their surroundings, eyes that can be anything they want to be—if only they just knew it.
Neji stares back with the same intensity, and she wonders what he sees. What he thinks of her. Their gaze holds for an electrifyingly long moment, and unbeknownst to her, Sakura's heartbeat races in her ribcage.
No. Not Sasuke-kun. Not Sasuke. Sasuke was never here—Sasuke will never be here again.
She looks away.
If things were different, she might have loved Neji. He's dignified and beautiful and smart and talented, and maybe everything she would have ever wanted—if only things didn't turn out the way they did.
She could have loved Neji, but she knows she can't now, because he's not Sasuke.
And, knowing this, she curls up on her side beside the fire and forces her eyes shut—forces herself to not notice his steady breathing that's in rhythm with the gusts of wind and crackling flames.
She forces herself to stop thinking, because she can't—she can't love Neji. It wouldn't be fair to Sasuke.
(And maybe she's never been truly free either.)
it wouldn't be make believe, if you believed in me
"You said it's refreshing, right?" She pulls him by the arm out of the cave the next morning, the sky blue and the snow lying thick, wet, and untouched on the ground. She breathes in the cold air, and realizes just how right he is; it's cleansing out here. She feels clean and new.
"We really should pack up and continue with our mission—" He stops mid-sentence when a snowball is aimed at his face with pinpoint accuracy. He ducks and it lands behind him, harmless.
"Oh, the Raikage can wait for an extra hour or two." She's already packing her second snowball, ignoring her cold hands, her numbing fingertips.
For the next little while, she has an all-out snowball war in the middle of the Lightening Country's barren landscape, and all she can think about is Neji and whiteness and snow, snow, snow.
a possibility, an opportunity—
News of Hyuuga Neji making ANBU spreads like wildfire, especially among the shinobi patients in the hospital who have nothing better to do. Sakura hears this in the morning; she sees Neji that afternoon, being forced into a BBQ restaurant.
She's sure she isn't the first to congratulate him, but she does it with the enthusiasm of a person who is. "I heard the news, Neji! Congratulations!"
"Thank you," he replies, but doesn't have a chance to say any more because he's shoved into the restaurant, Sakura pushed in right after him, courtesy of Gai.
"Oh, actually, I have somewhere to be—"
"Nonsense, Sakura!" Gai beams. "Any friend of Neji is a friend of ours! This is a celebration!" And although it's true that Neji doesn't quite compare to Uchiha Itachi or Hatake Kakashi, making ANBU at the age of seventeen is still a huge feat.
"Gai-sensei, Sakura-san is my friend too!" Lee protests, but to no avail. Sakura is ushered into the booth, somehow sandwiched between Lee and Neji.
Which is how she finds herself having a late lunch with Neji's teammates, pouring him a glass of congratulatory sake. This is definitely not how she imagined she'd spend her afternoon. She remains quiet, feeling slightly out of place, but gladly accepting the food that the others hand her. It's both strange and oddly fun—she wonders if this is how Neji feels when he's with his team.
They're a nice team, she thinks. Together since the beginning. They've always been together. It almost makes her a little sad.
"I'm sorry you were dragged into this," Neji murmurs into her ear when he notices that she's become too quiet. "I'm sure you have better places to be."
"I…" She struggles to come up with a lie. "I don't, actually. It's fine."
"I apologize on Gai-sensei's behalf."
"You don't have to! I'm enjoying myself, really." To reiterate, she cooks him a slice of pork and puts it in his bowl. "And besides," she adds, gently, "it's your day. Don't worry about me." She smiles, and for a moment, Neji is enthralled. It's so obvious that Sakura has to pretend that she doesn't notice—that his eyes drop her gaze and fall to her mouth instead, staring at the curve of her lips.
She thinks back to her first kiss, with the unexpected boy with snowy eyes. She had been so disappointed back then—and she almost laughs at herself, for being such a frivolous girl. She supposes she shouldn't have—couldn't have—been anything else, at the age of twelve.
(Not so much of a disappointment after all, huh?)
It's a nice thought, but she doesn't entertain it too much.
Because she still thinks of Sasuke. Because Sasuke tried to kill her.
And that is something she can never, never forget.
It's November. Winter is here. The weather in Konoha will remain fairly warm, Sakura knows, but she already feels cold.
(and the voice in the back of your head saying yes, a million times yes)
It is a frosty January night when Neji catches her after her night shift, the snow lightly falling from the midnight sky.
It's dark out. Sakura is tired.
And there it happens, right outside the hospital—
("I have feelings for you—")
A step forward.
("I would be very happy and honored if you—")
Snowflakes on his eyelashes, in his hair, and he is suddenly ethereal.
("And I realize we don't know each other very well yet, but if you'd let me, I'd love for that to change—")
He's stuttering. And blushing. And avoiding her gaze.
And Sakura's heart—
("I know I'm only a branch member of my clan, but if that's alright with you—")
—to her throat.
Hyuuga Neji, suddenly stripped down to nothing more than an honest, sincere boy, laying his heart out for her to see. He stands there, naked and vulnerable, and waiting. And hopeful. And terribly, terribly afraid.
And she stares at him, with those snowflakes on his eyelashes and in his hair, his eyes like glaciers with a thousand frozen secrets, and she thinks—
Her hands meet his shoulders when she stands on her tiptoes.
And she kisses him.
the song of you
10. Territorial. Sakura never knew up until now, never even considered the possibility, but he is incredibly territorial. Meaning that although he doesn't go around talking about the fact that he and Sakura are now dating, he definitely shows it. Because suddenly, Lee has an icy glare directed at him every time he talks about Sakura, and Naruto, Sakura's long time teammate and good friend, is on the receiving end of an (involuntary, Neji insists) punch when he pecks her on the cheek in a friendly manner.
9. Meticulous. His dates are thoroughly planned out, from start to finish, flourished in the most clichéd manner possible, from the red roses to the candlelit dinners. Neji goes by the book but he does it stunningly, so Sakura decides to overlook that half the time, he's actually so nervous around her that he forgets to make conversation over their expensive, five star dinners. (After all, it is kind of cute.)
8. Determined. On chilly nights, he will walk her home even though she tells him not to, because it is the chivalrous thing to do. She tells him chivalry is dead these days, especially amongst shinobi, but he pays her no heed—just grabs her hand tightly until she's sure it's gone numb. She gently pries herself free of his unintentional death grip and rearranges their hands so their fingers intertwine gently with each other instead, loose but noticeably present and yeah, chivalry may be dead, but it's really nice that he pretends it isn't anyway.
7. Kind. A Neji who drops everything and shows Hinata the same respect and attention that he gives Sakura has Sakura questioning him sometimes, but those moments are brief—because belatedly, she realizes that it's not just her and Hinata, it's anyone. Neji would save anyone. He might do it reluctantly and with his chin held high, and it might take him a little while, but he will do it. Because he knows what it's like to not be saved. And he will never let that happen to anyone else.
6. Silly. "Neji? What is—" "It's Valentine's Day. So I only thought it would be appropriate…" "Chocolates? And roses? You do know that you didn't have to, right? I honestly don't care about these things—" "Yes, but—" She interrupts him with a peck—first on his lips, then on his nose. "Are you secretly a romantic, Neji?" "What? Hardly!" Sakura laughs and holds up her cheesy gifts to make her point. He turns away, the tips of his ears red in a fierce blush. "Well, thank you. It's very sweet of you." "I was wondering if you would have dinner with me tonight?" "…I'm actually leaving on a mission with Lee in a few hours." "…I see." She clears her throat. "But when's White Day?" And at this, he seems to forgive her.
5. Perceptive. She's wringing her hands together as she tells him, "I'm going on an S-class mission tomorrow. With Naruto, Sai, and Kakashi." She wants to tell him more, but it's top secret. And she's also afraid. But Neji knows—that specific team formation, the way she can't meet his eyes—"It has to do with Sasuke, doesn't it?" She neither confirms nor denies it, and that is enough. So he takes her hands in his and he presses a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Do your best," he says, and that truly warms Sakura, all the way down to the very bottom of her heart.
4. Afraid. She tells him she's working the night shift (again), impassively, because this is normal for her. "Just go home, I'll see you in a few days." He is stiff, but nods—and she realizes she's done it again, just brushed him off because she often forgets that he is not just the prodigy who passes through life without much thought. Neji let her in long before they even started dating and she always forgets that he is not the same callous boy through and through. (He is not Sasuke.) So she puts down her clipboard, checks that no one is watching them in the busy hospital lobby, and kisses him once, takes a moment to enjoy the gentle feeling of his lips on her own, and smiles. "Maybe tomorrow morning," she amends. "I'll drop by the compound tomorrow morning."
3. Tender. It rains hard in the field but it doesn't wash the blood off her hands. How many has she killed this time? How many families has she destroyed? Sakura cuts herself off when she needs to be a murderer because she doesn't know how to deal with it—and she's numb, in the sea of corpses. Neji helps her to her feet and supports her all the way to the nearest inn; pulls off her boots and takes off her vest, unties her pack and her hitai-ate. He starts running the bath and when the water is warm, he speaks to her—warm yourself up, you'll catch a cold otherwise—and the life finally begins to return to her eyes. Sakura turns to look at Neji, and weakly, she smiles.
2. Cold. "Do you have a concussion?" "You tell me, you're the medic." She reaches out to untie his hitai-ate, and he slaps her hand away. "I can't diagnose you if you won't let me see anything, Neji." "You don't see with your eyes; you see with your chakra." "Yes, but—is this, by any chance, about your seal?" His silence says everything. "I've seen it before, you know. It's nothing new." "I'm not taking it off." He's staring right at her, but at the same time, right through her. And she doesn't know how to get through to that part of him.
1. But warm. Because he is chivalrous. Because he sees her, all of her, the breathtaking and the grotesque, the secrets she wants him to see and the secrets she never wants him to know about. He lies her down and she is bare, as bare as he was the day he confessed to her, and he loves her all the same. It is January again and today marks an entire year of them being together, and in this year, Sakura has discovered that Neji is actually one of the warmest people she has ever had the blessing to meet.
(0. And in desperate need of love. Because this past year, if Neji taught her anything, it's that everyone needs to be loved. Even her.)
your who, what, when, where, and why, i want all of you
It is one lunch at Ichiraku when Naruto asks them if they'll be expecting babies anytime soon. Neji chokes into his ramen and Sakura outright screams.
"What? Sakura-chan, you're already seventeen! And let's be honest, people in our line of work don't exactly live long lives, so you should do it while you have the chance!"
"We haven't…!" She's blushing so furiously that she can't even yell at him properly. "Shut up, Naruto!"
But really, they haven't yet. Mostly because they're busy, but also because Sakura doesn't feel comfortable doing that at the Hyuuga compound, and she still lives with her parents. It was already bad enough that the first time they met Neji face to face, her mother nearly fainted because Neji has no pupils. Sakura never realized that was actually a strange thing until then.
She's thought of it, but—
"Sakura," Neji says once they've left Ichiraku. "Are you busy tonight?"
Is he seriously…?
"Didn't you say your parents are on their second honeymoon in the Tea Country right now?"
"Yes," she answers, hesitantly. "Don't be intimidated by Naruto, Neji, it really doesn't matter—and I don't even want children right now—"
"I don't want children right now either," he interrupts, looking very serious. "But I want you. I have"—he clears his throat—"wanted you for…quite some time now." It's a rather forward statement, considering who it's coming from, and it has her as red as a beet.
She stares at him, and wonders if this is it—if he's the one, if he's always been the one, if Sasuke had only been a prelude to the adventure that is Neji. The future is so improbable and riddled with uncertainties but why does any of that even matter when Neji is here right now, giving himself to her like he always has, like he was always meant to?
"Is there something in particular that you want to eat tonight?" she asks, smiling. "I'll cook."
this is what you were afraid of
In the years Sakura has known Neji, he's made several impressions on her.
She knows he's an outstanding shinobi—to the point where she sometimes can't actually imagine him dying on the job—and she knows that his pride takes him great distances. He's proud of his skills and that is always good for someone who depends on those skills to stay alive.
He's conflicted. Sakura has a feeling that he'll always be conflicted—about his clan, about his position in the family. It's the one thing she can never change for him.
But the things she's never really thought about him—
Sexy. As she pushes his tunic off his shoulders, revealing an expanse of his skin—collarbones, arms, a lean and defined body—
Primal. He is a man before he is Neji and before he is a Hyuuga, and Sakura discovers this when he lifts her so her legs can wrap around his waist, his arms tense and flexing. He presses her back against the cold wall of her room, bumping into her drawer in the process, and kisses her, long and deep. His hair brushes over her bare shoulders and she shivers, hands cradling his face and oh, maybe this is…?
"Sakura," he breathes, his breath hot on her cheek. "Are you sure?"
"You're the one who suggested this." She's just as breathless as he is. They've been together for more than a year—yes, she's sure. She's never been more sure of anything in her life. Her heart is beating so frantically in her chest, not because she's nervous, but because she's excited—she never thought a man could strip her of her clothes without being afraid in one way or another, but she's not afraid—not of Neji, never of Neji, not this person who is so warm and so kind and so—
And so he lies her down on her bed and it's all terribly clichéd but unbelievably beautiful, because it's not about the how or the where or the when, but the who. Sakura has always known that, but never as real as she knows it right now, because Neji is above her, moving, breathtaking, and she almost wants to reach up and take off his hitai-ate so she can truly see every inch of him but she's afraid to, she's scared she'll ruin this and she doesn't want to do that to him. So she doesn't and he doesn't mention it and then she forgets it because there is still so much more of him that he's laid bare for her.
"I love you," he gasps, and for a single heartbeat, she freezes.
And then she's right back again: "I love you too," and if he notices her brief but staggering moment of hesitation, then he doesn't show it, because his eyes close and her eyes close too and everything falls away from around them.
childhood nightmares coming back to haunt you
She locks herself away for three days. She has visitors but she sends them all away when her parents ask if she wants to see them—and it's finally then, at the age of nineteen, that Sakura decides to move out so she can decide for herself whether she wants to answer the door or not.
In the entire week it takes for her to find the first cheap apartment and move her belongings in, the only person she talks to is Kakashi, the main reason being because he doesn't talk. He helps her carry her heavy boxes, memories of her childhood and family gatherings and lost friends, her heart in those breakable cardboard boxes, and together they don't say a word.
There's nothing to be said, really.
That night, when all of the boxes are lined up against the walls and Kakashi bids her goodbye, she reaches out and her fingers wrap pathetically around his wrist. He turns to face her, and waits.
"Sasuke-kun was blind," she whispers. Her voice is shaking.
"Yes," Kakashi agrees.
"Sasuke-kun was…" She swallows, and then it finally happens—she sinks to the floor and hugs her knees and suddenly she's crying; she's wailing and maybe it was always going to end this way, with her in pieces and with Sasuke six feet under. "Sasuke-kun is d-dead…"
"Yes," Kakashi says again, and he kneels down to rest a gentle hand on her head. "He's dead, Sakura."
And she cries. And he sits, cross-legged on the hardwood floor. And she curls up against his chest like she is twelve again, like the girl who wants nothing more than for her precious Sasuke-kun to come home.
And really, is she honestly anything more than that?
if there was a tragic ending, this would be it
The doorbell rings once only, and Sakura knows that it will not ring again if she decides to ignore it. Because the person waiting outside is not one to persist.
That chakra signature has always been comforting, but not tonight. She opens the door anyway, the chilly autumn air rolling in. She knows her eyes are dull as she looks up at Neji, as beautiful as he was on the very first day.
He was, of course, one of her first visitors in her last days that she lived with her parents—she turned him away all the same, despite the fact that he's her boyfriend of nearly two years. She couldn't face anyone then, and especially not him.
Neji takes one look at her, shuts the door behind him, and pulls her into his arms—she leans against him like a rag doll, limp and numb and unfeeling.
"I know he was important to you," he says into her hair. "I'm sorry."
She closes her eyes and breathes him in, wondering how she could have ever seen Sasuke in Neji. They are completely different people—Neji so much warmer, so much kinder, who is concerned when he hurts people.
She used to think it was Sasuke. She used to think she was meant for no one but Sasuke.
Sakura pulls herself from Neji, and he peers at her, snowy eyes curious.
He is not Sasuke. Neji is not Sasuke.
"I don't think we should see each other anymore," she tells him. She's too tired to even sound like she cares. (But she does—she cares, and that is why she's doing this.)
Because Neji is not Sasuke.
Neji is so shocked that he doesn't even know what to say for several moments. "What?"
She takes a step back, and it hurts, it physically hurts—there is an ache in her chest because more than putting physical distance between them, there is now also an emotional chasm separating them. "We should stop seeing each other," she repeats, firmer this time.
"What brought this about?" He takes a step closer and she backs up again. "Did I do something wrong—"
"Stay away." She bumps into her coffee table and the flowers that Ino brought her topple to the floor, the vase shattering with a loud crash. "Don't come near me." You're too kind. You're so kind it hurts.
She can't do this to him—Neji isn't Sasuke, which is why she can't be with him like she has been all this time. Naïvely, stupidly, as if being with him would nullify the love she has for Sasuke. It's not fair towards Neji—because she knows now, she does love Neji—but it's just that she loves Sasuke too, in a different but completely consuming way, one that has her falling apart when she even thinks about him, and who is it to say that Neji deserves that?
Because that's the thing. Neji isn't Sasuke. Neji deserves far more, far better than what Sasuke has ever, and will ever deserve. He deserves more than what she can give to him.
"Sakura—" His brow is creased with worry. She's crying. She's never let him see her cry before. "You don't truly mean that, do you?"
It takes all of her strength and then some to speak with even some tone of resolve. "I do. Don't you think this lasted long enough?"
"You're crying," he points out. "You don't make a very strong point."
(And he still sees right through her, every part of her that she doesn't want him to see because it will just hurt him. Sakura is pink and pretty on the outside but she's just as monstrous as everyone else on the inside.)
"I mean what I said," she all but snarls. She steps on a shard of the broken vase and visibly winces. Neji makes a move to help her—"I said stay away from me! Don't touch me!" If he touches her, she's going to fall apart. He's been her comfort for so long that it's become second nature to curl against him, to let him make up for her shortcomings. How long will he continue to be her shoulder for?
Neji looks unconvinced, but he doesn't push further. Why is he always like that? Why doesn't he fight for what he wants? Why does he always stand by and let her do what she wants even if it hurts him—
Because he's the same as her. Because he wants her to be happy, even if it means he's not. Because he's always been doing what she's doing right now, doing what he thinks is best for her.
(Kind Neji. Unbelievable Neji. Extraordinary Neji.)
"You should go," she says quietly, bending down to pull the broken ceramic from her foot without much thought.
He doesn't utter so much as a word. She doesn't watch him go, but she hears him—his footsteps, the clicking of the door, and then the deafening silence, louder than it has ever been.
Sakura cleans up her broken vase and her blood off the floor, unable to stop crying the entire time. She can bandage her foot and that will heal and she can even get rid of the scar if she really wants to, but maybe she will never heal from Sasuke. Or from Neji. Maybe she was never meant to heal.
(Maybe. That word has never been scarier than it is now.)
October comes and goes. And then November. And December. And January.
January. Two years since Neji first came up to her after her night shift and asked if he could be hers right outside of the hospital. Six years since she first kissed him, underneath the mistletoe. Four months since she lied through her teeth and told him she didn't want him anymore.
Nearly seven years since Sasuke broke their hearts. Five months since they found him dead, sitting against a large boulder as though he was just sleeping. Dead for God knows how long—up in the north of the Earth Country, a body can be preserved outdoors for long periods of time, thanks to the negative temperatures.
Sakura can count everything in numbers, but it still feels like an eternity regardless.
It's January again. She doesn't remember winter to be this cold.
"If you love him, why don't you stay with him?"
Sakura likes camping out in Naruto's dingy apartment because it feels less lonely, and because Naruto is always warm. Even if he talks too much and asks too many questions.
"You know, it really isn't your decision whether he gets to stay with you or not. It's his."
"What do you think Sasuke-kun felt?" she asks, steering the conversation in an entirely different direction. "Before he died. How do you think he felt? Do you think he was happy?"
Naruto takes his time answering, chooses his words carefully. "I think he was satisfied. Because he wouldn't have let himself die otherwise."
She pushes her cup ramen away, only half eaten. Naruto thoughtlessly swipes it off the table and finishes it for her. "So in the end, we really didn't matter to him."
"I still believe we did." His slurping does a good job of hiding the melancholy in his tone, but it doesn't cover it completely. "Just not enough, you know?"
Just not enough. Of course. Sakura has never been enough for anyone—not for Sasuke, not for Neji, not even for herself.
It's not fair.
and not knowing where to go or what to do
Summer is stifling, all humid and heat, and Sakura finds it more and more difficult to breathe every day. She takes refuge in the air conditioned hospital and immerses herself in work.
There's a knock at the door of her office, and a moment later, a familiar face pokes in.
"Sai!" She jumps up from her desk and leaps towards him, laughing as he spins her around in his arms. "You're back!"
He holds her out by her shoulders and inspects her. "You still look like shit," he tells her honestly. It's been two months since they've last seen each other; he left for a mission and she hasn't had a glimpse of him since. She raises an eyebrow at him. "Less like shit than before," he amends. "But still like shit."
"It's progress," she hums. "That's all that matters." She grabs her stethoscope to conduct the standard post-mission checkup (Sai needs them because he's from Root and Tsunade is always concerned about him). "How are you feeling? Any abnormalities?" She presses the stethoscope to his chest and listens to his heartbeat.
"None more than usual." She continues with the checkup; sticking a popsicle stick in his mouth, checking his eyes—and then he says: "What about you?"
She smiles. "I'm the medic, not you."
"Yes, but we're friends, right?" He smiles right back at her, and it makes her uneasy. "How are you doing?"
"Good. I'm good."
Sai likes to stare at her and analyze her—he told her once that she's always so much heart and so little brain that it's fascinating that what she does rarely follows logic. He does that now, his eyes searching her expression for something new to learn.
"There's nothing to see, Sai." She takes a step away and hangs her stethoscope around her neck. "You can stop looking."
He shrugs and turns away, aloof. "I think there's everything to see."
"Okay." She crosses her arms, challenging. "What do you see?"
"I see denial." Sai's answer is immediate and without hesitation. "And suppression. And you trying very hard to convince yourself that things are better this way."
His words hit a nerve, and she flinches, just a little.
"And I see that there are things people can move on from, and things people can't. And this is something you can't move on from until you get closure."
When did Sai get so good at this? Has it really been several years since she first met this empty shell of a man, filling him up with everything that makes her sad and weak and vulnerable?
"You love Neji, don't you? He's the only one you've ever been with."
She turns away. "So? What does that matter now?"
"Sasuke is dead." She flinches again, more visibly this time. "Sasuke is the ghost of your past. No one is expecting you to just forget him. And," he adds this, softer, more tenderly than Sakura ever thought Sai could, "I think Neji still loves you, too. Less because he can't let go and more because he doesn't know how to."
"What do you know about Neji?" she grumbles. She likes Sai and she knows he's perceptive if he tries hard enough, but she doesn't want him to try—not about this, especially not this.
"A lot." He smiles. "Because in many ways, he's just like me. You need him, yes, but maybe he needs you more."
A lump rises in her throat, and she forces it back down. "It doesn't matter now," she snaps. "What's done is done." It's been several months since she and Neji parted ways; they haven't spoken properly since, unless it was work related. Every moment with him is like an eternity that she doesn't want to face. Everything is too late now.
"Didn't you used to say to me that second chances are always possible?" Sai ruffles her hair—an action he picked up from Kakashi, and one that Sakura never really had the heart to push away. "And didn't you tell me once that I'm a living, breathing example of a second chance gone right?"
"It's still too late." And even if it's not, Neji should still move on. There are better people than her.
(She loves him, and that is why she's doing this. She couldn't let Sasuke go—she held on and kicked and screamed until the very end. She'll do it right this time; she'll let Neji go, slowly, gently, kindly.)
"And anyway." She turns to face him again and there it is, her perfect mask—the one thing she learned from Sai, that perfect porcelain smile. "You're not supposed to be saving me! I don't need saving. But I'll save you." Sai stares at her, eyes inquiring. "So that you won't end up like me."
He has learned a lot in these past years, but Sai has not learned quite enough to counter that.
So it ends with Sakura's victory, but it doesn't quite feel like one.
and a breath, a gasp, a long overdue relief to shriveled up lungs
And she thinks she will be okay. It takes time, but everything gets better with time. Everything heals.
Autumn is cool and comforting on her skin, and she feels refreshed and new.
She's on the southern border of the Fire Country with Naruto, Kakashi, and Sai, the standard A-rank mission, and this—this is her life. Sakura is twenty and she has long since been old enough to die in action and she is strangely okay with that. She's thoughtlessly fighting an enemy with her teammates (because it's routine now, to kill, to take life, to unrighteously decide a person's fate), and it has long since stopped hurting, everything is numb and yes, this is good.
Learn to detach from the pain, learn to cling to the joy. Sakura clings like her life depends on it, she spends time with the people she still has the privilege to love and she laughs, and in that sense, she doesn't think she's changed. There is still hope for her, maybe.
She finds herself in agonizing pain. Oh. When did that happen?
There's a katana sheathed into her gut and she staggers backwards, clutching the weapon in both of her hands.
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto rushes to her immediately and crushes her opponent's skull in with the Rasengan. She leans back against the trunk of a tree, the bark digging into her back.
Sasuke used to use a katana.
"Sakura-chan, are you alright? Pull it out, heal yourself!"
She feels dizzy. Her grip on the sword loosens and she slides against the tree until she's sitting, eyes clouding over.
If I just wait, will I see Sasuke-kun again…? Will he finally answer all of the questions that I never got to ask?
Suddenly, Kakashi and Sai are there too—they're shouting at her, screaming, and she can't comprehend all of their words. Her injury is going numb—her body is going into shock—
Sai slaps her across the face, hard, and she's abruptly pulled away from the darkness that was beginning to shroud around her. "Snap the fuck out of it!" And she stares at him, wide-eyed, never having heard him curse before, or speak with such flaming anger. "I'm pulling that katana out on the count of three," he says sternly, "and then you will heal yourself."
She shakes her head. "I don't want to…"
"You don't get a choice!"
"Yeah I do. It's my life."
Sai grips her chin and forces her to look directly at him. "It's not just your life. It's our lives. It's Neji's life. The effect Sasuke's death had on you? That's exactly what you're going to do to us, except ten times worse, if you give up now." She watches him, unmoving. "And I will never, ever forgive you for giving up. This isn't you. Haruno Sakura doesn't give up." He kisses her hard on the forehead before gripping the handle of the katana. "I'm going to pull it out. One—"
"If I don't make it—" Her bottom lip is trembling. The blood loss will be tremendous once the katana is out. With the pain and disorientation, she isn't sure if she'll be able to work efficiently and effectively enough. "Tell Tsunade-sama and Ino and Neji—"
"Tell them yourself." He smiles, but Sakura can swear that the corners of his eyes are wet with unseen tears. "Three."
And he pulls.
a new beginning for you and me
There is a soft knock at the door before it opens, and several people enter the room: Tsunade, Ino, Yamato, Kakashi, Naruto, and Sai.
"How are you feeling?" Tsunade asks, gazing down at Sakura with maternal eyes.
"It's still tender," she admits. "But better."
She had definitely done a sloppy job in the field, but it was enough to keep her alive until they brought her back to Konoha. It was the middle of the afternoon and broad daylight when Team Kakashi shot through the village, lightening fast, a blood covered Sakura in Naruto's arms and heading straight for the hospital. According to Ino, she's been the talk of the village for the past few days.
Naruto's eyes are watery now, and Sakura wonders how long he held in his tears for. "Sakura-chan!" he wails, and collapses on top of her, a poor unsuspecting patient recovering in a hospital bed. She flinches—he landed right on her injury. "I thought you were going to die!"
"But I didn't." She pets his hair and smiles. Even without Sasuke, even without Neji—she still has all of these people important to her, and it was stupid of her to think that leaving them behind would be an acceptable thing to do.
Ino is on the verge of tears too—her bottom lip is trembling, and she stares at Sakura with fierce, angry eyes. As if accusing her for even allowing herself to be injured in the first place.
(Sakura is blessed—she is so, so blessed.)
Team Gai arrives not too long later, and her other friends excuse themselves so her new visitors can have an ample amount of time with her. Lee has Neji in tow, and Sakura's brow creases with worry. She doesn't know how to face him.
"If you died," Tenten says with a wry smile, "you would've made the history books."
"Tenten!" Lee cries, offended. "How could you say that?"
"It's true, though! Sakura is legendary, right behind Tsunade-sama! Never mind making the history books, there would be entire volumes written about her!"
The two teammates continue to bicker; Sakura would have laughed, if it didn't cause pain to shoot up her middle. Neji stands there, awkward. Sakura finds staring at the tiled ceiling to be a very consuming task.
"I'm glad you're alright," he finally says, his voice sounding strained.
"Thanks," she replies, just as awkward. This is one of the people she thought of when she was so close to dying—how is it that after all this time, he still matters so much to her?
"I would have brought flowers, but—" Neji glances at the bright yellow daffodils still clutched in Lee's hand, now being strangled as he argues with Tenten. "Lee insisted he knew flowers better than I do."
"Well, he does," she says. "All you ever bought me were roses."
He bristles. "They're romantic."
There's a moment of silence, and then she really does laugh, pain be damned. Neji hasn't changed at all. She's thankful for that.
"It's not funny, Sakura," he snaps, ears flushing a deep red.
But it is. It's all so funny. It's hilarious that they're still the same even after having separated for so long—that they still fall together so easily, naturally, like they were always meant to return to each other. Does Neji feel that way too? Was Sai telling the truth? Does Neji still love her?
She doesn't ask, and naturally, he doesn't tell her.
But that's okay—because she's glad she decided to live. She and Neji will never be the same again but it's the fact is that she's alive and that gives her so many more opportunities than if she were dead. Seeing Neji like this is better, so much better than seeing Sasuke in the afterlife.
She has Sai to thank for knocking some sense back into her. She is Haruno Sakura, and Haruno Sakura does not give up—that will be written in the history books: that she is hardheaded and stubborn but never gives up on the things that matter to her.
The small talk between her and Neji dwindles away, but Sakura wants to say more to him. What would be appropriate? How does she learn how to be friends with him again when they used to be so much more? How does she look at him and not remember the best of him, his warm hands, the scars on his arms, his breath against her hair when they fall asleep beside each other?
Sakura doesn't know, so when Lee grasps her hands in his and begins gushing (and handing her the squashed daffodils in the process), she has no choice but to turn away from Neji and to listen to Lee.
One step at a time, she supposes.
an acceptable reality but one you wouldn't have preferred
Winter always holds so much comfort for Sakura because it's finally when the suffocating humidity of Konoha lifts, even if it's for a few brief months, and the cool wind blows in. She never quite liked or appreciated winter until she met Neji—winter always reminds her of him, his snowy eyes, that snowball fight in the Lightening Country.
(He had won that fight, predictably, with a well aimed snowball to her face and tackling her into the snow, cold and wet but alive. Was that when she fell in love with him? She doesn't know.)
She anticipates winter this year, because it will mark one year since she and Neji went separate ways, and that is a big milestone. Because it means she survived. And that she will survive even more.
She and Neji are okay now, she thinks. Not all the time, but sometimes. Because occasionally, he will still look at her that way, with his eyes flitting to her lips when she smiles like he used to do even before he asked her out, and he will still trip over his words because she makes him nervous. It excites Sakura a little, but it mostly upsets her because it's almost been a year, so why can't he just move on already?
("What?" a voice in the back of her mind taunts. "Not like you've moved on, either.")
She still thinks back to what Sai told her all those months ago, but rarely, because she doesn't want to tempt herself into making the wrong decision.
It's not because Neji doesn't want to move on—it's because he doesn't know how.
"Sakura?" She turns, right in the middle of the street, and—speak of the devil—there is Neji, jogging to catch up to her. "Tenten said she wanted to return this to you." He hands her a scroll; one that Sakura gave Tenten one week prior, about the history of medicine. Tenten may have given up medical jutsu, but she's still interested in it, apparently.
"Oh, thanks." She tosses the scroll into the air and catches it again. "I didn't think she'd read through it so fast."
"She likes reading about how Hokage-sama changed the course of medical jutsu. She was the one who pushed the field to be what it is today, after all."
"Mm, yeah." She smiles awkwardly and waits for him to bid goodbye and leave—but he doesn't, and there they stand in the middle of the street, causing the villagers to meander around them and give them odd looks. "Is there something else you…?"
"No. Well, yes." Sakura raises her eyebrow. It's not like him to hesitate, or change his mind. "My shoulder…"
Two months ago, Neji suffered a severe shoulder injury—one that she had fixed, but she did warn him not to strain it too much yet, and that he will require regular checkups for it for the next little while. Naturally, he doesn't return to have her monitor its healing progress. And naturally, he has probably strained it a lot since she last told him not to.
She sighs. "Okay. Well, I actually spent all night at the hospital so I haven't slept in over twenty-four hours, but if you still trust my abilities under great sleep deprivation, you can come on over to my place."
"Perhaps another time, then—"
"You actually don't get a choice in the matter; you've had your shoulder wait long enough. Come on." She continues on the path that she was originally walking before Neji found her, not giving him a chance to protest. What is he even thinking? The human body is ridiculously fragile enough as it is, especially for people in their line of work, so why can't he just take good care of it? Is it really so hard to drop by the hospital twice a month?
She makes sure to keep two steps ahead of him so she has to neither look at him nor talk to him. She would much rather have someone else look at Neji's shoulder, but she's actually the personal medic of most of the shinobi of her generation; not only does she have a personal sense of obligation towards keeping them as healthy and safe as possible, she also has an actual obligation towards them.
The last time Neji's been in her home was when she kicked him out of her life, her feelings carefully organized away in stacked boxes. Now it's homier, warmer; a pot of food in her fridge courtesy of her mother, pictures framed up on the wall and sitting on flat surfaces.
She's rebuilt her life since Neji. And it feels good.
"Come in. Just give me a sec." She tosses her scroll onto the couch (it bounces off and lands onto the carpeted floor) and pulls off her jacket. When she turns to Neji again, he's picked up the fallen scroll and placed it on the coffee table.
"I really think you should get some sleep first," he insists when she sits him down in the couch.
"I've worked under worse conditions, and you know it." She pushes down his tunic just enough to see his shoulder—and winces. His normally pale skin is red and inflamed—it must hurt to even move it.
She punches it—not hard, but not gently either—and Neji jumps, grabbing the injured area. "Sakura!"
"That's for not listening to the things I tell you! What is so difficult about letting me monitor it?"
"I was—busy." The end of his sentence trails off like a second thought, and she knows he's lying. She sighs, and her hands glow the familiar mint green. Whatever the reason was, he's definitely paying for it now. The previously healed (but still tender) area is now swollen around the bone because he couldn't wait two weeks before proving to the world that he's a competent shinobi, because apparently the world forgets things like that. She wants to punch him again, just for being stupid.
"I've been your medic for years," she grouses. "I've heard all of the excuses. 'Busy' doesn't cut it anymore."
"I've been," he tries again—but he doesn't finish the sentence.
(Once upon a time, he would not have hesitated.)
When her chakra fades away from her hands, his shoulder is looking considerably better. Her fingers hover over his skin for a brief moment, wanting to touch but knowing she shouldn't—and then she stands, clearing her throat. "If you do that again, I'm treating you the civilian way."
This is a threat that scares every shinobi, Neji included. He pulls his tunic back up and straightens up. "Duly noted."
When she sees him off at her front door, she opens her mouth—but to say what?
Don't go? Please stay? My mom's cooking is really good, have you ever tried it? I always sleep on the left side of the bed because you always slept on the right whenever you came over?
There is nothing appropriate to say. So she shuts her mouth.
Neji's eyes are perceptive, knowing, and even a little bit kind. "Get some rest, Sakura. And don't worry about me."
"I'm not," she tells him.
He smiles, faintly, and turns to walk away.
And Sakura closes the door and slides to the floor.
And she feels very, very lonely.
(She's built a life without Neji, but really, what is a life without Neji?)
"Don't you think, in another life," Kakashi says to her one afternoon, "Sasuke would have wanted you to be happy?"
She kisses Sai one day, and of course he kisses her back, eager to experience anything new—but once they pull away for breath, he stares at her very intently, analyzing. Her heart is pounding in her ribcage and it feels like falling in love all over again, but then he takes her by her shoulders and keeps her at arm's length.
"I am not Sasuke," he says.
She frowns. "I know."
"I am not Neji."
"…I know that, too."
He pulls her close again, and her face presses into his neck and he hugs her so tightly that she wonders if he's hurting on her behalf.
And she clutches him back like a lifeline. Maybe, in front of Sai, it's okay to cry.
"You're in love with him," he states.
"Yeah. I guess I am."
It's Naruto who shakes her awake on a windy December night. "Baa-chan needs you to go to the hospital right now!"
"What?" She sits up groggily, barely registering Naruto throwing her clothes in her face and flipping the light switch on. "What's going on, Naruto?" It takes her several seconds to realize that he's clad in his jounin vest, dirty and battered. "Did you just get back from a mission?"
"Yes, and you need to be at the hospital, right now!" She listens to him, but obviously isn't moving fast enough for his taste, because then he adds: "It's Neji."
That has her running out the door with her boots on the wrong feet and hitai-ate hastily tied on, leaving her front door open for Naruto to close as he hurriedly follows after her.
Neji? The emergency at the hospital is Neji?
She drops all predispositions and barrels through the front door (it takes Shizune three tries to get catch her attention for long enough to direct her to the operating room on the third floor), her heart racing and eyes wide.
"I'm here!" She bursts through into the operating room, where Tsunade and several other medics are already seated on the floor.
Tsunade barks out the diagnosis (destroyed liver, severe burns, one of his kidneys has already gone, his chakra system is down) and Sakura trembles—but she can't, not now—because if she doesn't stay calm she could make a mistake, and—
Neji could die because of her.
He's lying in the middle of the formation, eyes closed, breathing shallow, hair undone. Falling apart at the seams.
Don't go. You can't go.
"Sakura!" Tsunade's voice brings her back to reality. "I need you to focus. Can you focus?"
She swallows. "Yes."
The Hokage nods. "Okay. Let's start."
(Sakura sees a success, she sees Neji's eyes fluttering open and she sees everyone sighing in relief. She sees him living the rest of his life because she saved him in that moment, and that alone could give her enough courage to do anything, survive anything else that came her way.
But she also sees a failure, a tombstone and a name etched on the epitaph, Lee and Tenten crying, and she sees a dull world, a cold sun and a dreary winter and a burning summer and a life that she does not want to live.
She sees both possibilities and she's scared, so scared that her efforts won't be enough.)
all you're terrified of is yourself
In the teahouse, Sakura brings her cup to her lips. Her hands are still shaking.
It's been too long since she last slept properly, but how can she, when things are like this? It seems like every time she finally gets to her feet again, life somehow finds a way to push her back down, determined to keep her on the ground with scraped hands and bruised knees.
"Sakura?" The voice is timid, but she'd know it anywhere. She looks up at Hinata, who has her hands clasped tightly in front of her. "May I sit?"
She nods, gesturing at the seat across from her. "I'm not expecting anyone."
So the Hyuuga heiress sits down, and is given a cup of tea by the waitress. They're quiet for a very long time, neither of them knowing what to say and absorbed in their own thoughts—until Hinata opens her mouth to speak, but the moment she does, she has to clamp it shut again because tears begin to streak down her face, relentlessly, inevitably.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, her voice shaking. "It was me. He was protecting me—I saw the attack coming but I knew I couldn't defend it, it would have hit no matter what any of us did—but he jumped right in the way, he took the blow for me…"
Of course Neji would do that. Of course. Even though he's bound to protect Hinata, he would have done it even if he wasn't—because that's the kind of person Neji is. He would save anyone.
"It's okay," Sakura croaks, and it's only then that she realizes that she's crying, too. "It wasn't your fault."
"It is." Hinata's normally lively eyes are red and puffy—clearly, she's already done a lot of crying even before she came to see Sakura.
"It isn't something you should be apologizing for," she says, dully. "He's part of the branch family. It was his duty."
"Yes, but—" Hinata hesitates then. And when she speaks again, her voice is very soft, very quiet. "But you love him much more preciously and much more dearly that I do." And this very well might be true, so Sakura doesn't say anything to counter it.
"Have you seen him yet?" she asks instead.
"He hasn't woken up yet, no."
Neji came out of surgery several hours ago, when the sun was just peeking above the cliff face. It is lunchtime now, but Sakura left the hospital a little while ago at the first opportunity—after racing to the nearest bathroom and retching in a toilet.
It was the scariest thing in her life. Scarier than fighting Zabusa, scarier than her first kiss underneath the mistletoe, scarier than dancing around death with Sasori and scarier than seeing Sasuke's frozen corpse in the barren wilderness. Sakura doesn't know if there will ever be anything scarier than seeing Neji on the verge of disappearing from this world.
"You should see him," Hinata says gently. "I think he would be glad."
"He can't be glad if he's still comatose," Sakura replies flatly.
"I think he'll know." Hinata smiles. She has Neji's smile—warm, kind. "I think Neji-nii-san has always had a sixth sense when it comes to you."
"Go see him." Hinata takes a sip of her tea, idly looking out at the street. It's sunny—unfairly sunny, considering how dark and cloudy Sakura is feeling. "You shouldn't deny yourself of that."
"Why is everyone insisting that we should be together?" Sakura grumbles. (But she gets up anyway, because—well, because.) "We broke up ages ago."
"Because everyone knows you shouldn't have."
She turns away, biting her bottom lip. "Don't say that."
But she goes anyways—bids goodbye to Hinata and trudges down the street, probably looking like death. It's pretty much how she feels anyway.
When she peeks into Neji's room, she releases an unconscious sigh of relief to see that he hasn't woken yet. She wasn't sure what to say to him if he was. There's no one else in the room right now; she steps in and quietly closes the door behind her.
His hitai-ate is folded neatly on the bedside table, but there are still bandages wrapped around his forehead. She steps up to the bed, and for a moment, her fingers hover.
He's breathing so peacefully—he could just be taking a nap right now.
Sakura pulls a chair up and sits down, and after a moment of great contemplation and hesitation, she reaches out and holds his limp hand.
He's warm. She almost sighs at the contact; she's forgotten the simple feeling of their hands touching each other. She turns his hand over in her palms and traces the lines on his skin. Callouses, rough skin, short nails—the hands of a soldier. The hands of a protector. She grips it tightly and tries not to cry.
His hand is still in hers when she lies her head down on the bed, watching his face. Just for this moment, maybe. Just for this moment, she'll pretend like they never went their separate ways, like still she has the right to sit beside him like his lover.
Just the touch of his hand is enough to make her fall in love all over again.
She's about to drift off to sleep (finally, because she feels at peace when she's with him him) when the door opens, breaking the comfortable silence.
Neji's hand, encased in hers, twitches.
Lee and Gai, who are usually so boisterous, are solemn today. "Sakura-san. Nice to see you here. How is he?"
"Well, he's out of the woods now. He just needs to get some rest. Knowing him, though, he won't wait until his body's ready before he starts pushing it."
"He's always been a little stupid in that sense," Lee agrees, nodding.
"I'm not stupid," Neji suddenly says, and all three of them jump. Sakura pulls her hand away from his, as if burned. How long has he been awake for?
"Neji!" Gai rushes up to him and hovers uncomfortably close to him. "I see your fabulous and positive attitude is still intact!"
He struggles to sit up, and Sakura helps props him up against his pillows. "How could I not, with you two disturbing the peace around here?" His voice is hoarse. Sakura swallows; even post-surgery and with tangled hair and dark shadows under his eyes after having narrowly escaped death, he is beautiful. Neji is always going to take her breath away, even when he's old and grey and wrinkly, and Sakura isn't sure if that's a reality she's ready to accept yet.
"I-I'll give you some time alone," she mutters, standing to her feet and nearly toppling her chair over. "I'll see you some other time, Neji. Get your rest."
But she doesn't wait. She's across the room and out the door in less than an instant.
Did he know she had been holding his hand? Why didn't he say anything? She leans against the wall and slides to the floor, hugging her knees to her chest.
Sleep. She needs sleep.
(What is she going to do? What is she resisting? What is she trying to accomplish here?)
Sakura hasn't been in the academy for years, but she still remembers it as if she were there just yesterday. It's lively tonight; colorful Christmas lights decorating the walls, and Ichiraku take-out sitting on the last row of tables.
She remembers her last Christmas party here, still broken and empty over Sasuke. The feeling tonight is similar, although not for the same reason and not entirely as earth-shattering as the first time. Sakura thinks she's getting better at handling loneliness and she's proud of that, although it's never something she's wanted to know how to do.
She's chatting with Ino, laughing with a drink in her hand, when she hears Lee call out her name. She turns and sees him in the doorway, Neji at his side, on a crutch and with bandages wrapped around his middle.
"That—that idiot," Sakura hisses, anger suddenly bubbling up hot in her stomach. She shoves her drink into Ino's hands (and subsequently spills it all over her). "I told him not to get out of bed for another week!"
"He just wants to see you," Ino teases, but Sakura pays her no heed as she stalks over to the two men.
"Merry Christmas, Sakura-san!" Lee grins brightly.
She smiles back, just as brightly. "Merry Christmas, Lee." They hug for a brief moment before she yanks Neji out and into the hallway—he nearly falls over his own crutch. "What are you doing here?"
"It's Christmas Eve," he replies, miffed. "I do not wish to spend it cooped inside a white hospital room with no company."
Sakura hits him, but at least she has the decency this time to aim for an uninjured part of his body. "This is exactly why you never heal properly, you moron." Refusing to talk to him any longer in case his stupidity infects her, she spins on her heels to stalk back into the classroom, clearly thoroughly pissed off.
She's stopped by Ino before she can even take two steps into the room. "What?"
The blonde points above Sakura, and—
"What the hell, Ino, I'm not going to be a victim of the same thing twice!" The mistletoe hangs there, seemingly harmless.
"Consider it an opportunity," Ino calls as Sakura goes back the way she came, right past Neji and underneath the mistletoe and down the hallway because no, this is not happening, not today, not ever. At this point, Sakura doesn't even know why she has to deny this anymore; she just does, because if she gives in now, then what was the point of holding out for this long? What was all of her struggle for?
Neji can still be happy. As long as she can put on a good act, pretend she doesn't care about him anymore, then he can move on and be happy and find someone better than she can ever be for him.
It's lightly snowing outside, but the cold air comes as a relief from the stifling air inside. She takes several deep breaths, rubbing her cold arms.
She hears footsteps crunching on the ice and snow—uneven steps, a person with a limp.
"Do you want me to yell at you again?" she says exasperatedly, tiredly.
Neji makes his way around her to sit down on the small swings. He's slightly out of breath.
"To be frank, no," he tells her.
"Then what do you want?"
He struggles for a moment to say something, the words bubbling in the back of his throat, but in the end, he keeps it down, and stays quiet. He swings a little, awkwardly. She stands there and continues to rub her arms.
"You should stop doing that, you know." Her voice is quiet.
"Acting like you still have a chance with me. You don't. I thought I made that clear a long time ago."
"What," Neji says, "just because I have no chance, it means I can't talk to and be friends with the one woman I've ever really loved in my life?" His words, spoken factually and without hesitation, make Sakura look away.
"You used to never be this open," she mutters.
"I'm still not." There's a faint smile in his voice. "I'm just open to you. Because I trust you."
"Is that a problem?" She doesn't answer. Neji sighs. "I have…always been bound by my clan. And I will be, until my death—you know that. It is not something I can change, but…even chained down and locked in, I found…" He trails off then. "You taught me an invaluable lesson, Sakura: that happiness isn't always out of reach. That I don't have to fight alone. How could I…how could I just walk away from you after that?"
Sakura stares at Neji, the snow on his eyelashes and in his hair, matching his eyes and pale skin, and she wonders how he always finds a way to get to her, to find his way through her tangle of heartstrings and strike her where she's most vulnerable. Her nails dig into her palm. She never knew she did that for him—it had always felt like she was the one doing all the taking, selfishly, thoughtlessly.
"There are other girls. Better ones. Better than me."
"That's not for you to decide. This is my life—and if this is the only aspect of it that I have control over, so be it." Neji's eyes are relentless on her, and it feels like she's burning underneath his gaze. "I'm not forcing you to take me back. Because it's not my place to do so. But know that it is not your place to make my decisions for me."
He sits there on that swing and all he does is stare at her, and it feels a hundred times more powerful than it should. Sakura wants him to stand up, wants him to swoop her off her feet so she doesn't have to think anymore—she wants him to be selfish just this once because she wants him back, she wants him back—
(What a Sasuke-esque thing to do, to take everything for himself. Neji isn't that kind of person.)
And she knows this.
Every moment that they stare at each other, her resolves grows weaker—until finally, fuck it, we were under that mistletoe, it's Christmas, I'm going to do whatever I want—and she leans down and grabs his face and crashes their mouths together, rough but wanting and needing.
One of his hands weaves into her hair and tightly grabs hold of the roots, anchoring her in place, and the other covers one of her hands on his cheek. They kiss harshly, messily, and Sakura doesn't know what she's doing and she's confused and afraid and—
But it's so good. She's forgotten the feeling of Neji's lips against hers. His taste, the way he moves, accustomed to her and familiar and relearning every curve of her mouth—Neji is fire and heat and rage and passion, wind and ice and frigid and difficult, and she loves every single bit of him.
They part, but their faces keep close, both of them panting, hot breaths in winter air. Neji tilts his chin and they kiss just once more, gently this time, softly, with a million possibilities and galaxies swimming behind her eyelids. He is so kind that she can barely stand it; the tips of their noses brush and she takes in a shaky breath, balancing on a tightrope.
"Is this…" Neji's tentative question is never finished because she yanks away in that moment, cheeks flushed. His hand leaves her hair; hers fall from his face.
"I'm sorry," she says hastily, not able to get the words out fast enough. "That was inappropriate of me."
"Sorry," she repeats, before spinning on her feet and rushing away. She can't even return to the party; she's too disoriented to socialize and pretend everything's fine, so she hurries home on a lonely Christmas Eve, cold and colder.
The very first time she kissed him underneath that mistletoe, she had fled home, desperately hoping that he wouldn't follow her in fear that a terrible fate would befall her. And he didn't, which came as a great relief.
Now, all she wants him to do is to come after her, even with his injury, his crutch, his limp, and the fact that she firmly told him not to—she wants him to show up at her door and fight for her because clearly, he actually knows what he's doing and what he wants, while Sakura doesn't even have a clue about herself.
But of course, he doesn't.
And there is no relief upon realizing that.
It's quiet in the examination room as Neji lays topless on the bed, faint scars adorning his torso. He now has a new one to add to the collection.
His hair is splayed out underneath him but he isn't looking at her—instead, turning his head so he's looking out the window. She works quietly, pressing various spots at his sides. "Does anything feel tender?"
He's…Sakura can't quite place the word. There's something off about him.
She shakes the thought away and returns to her work, her hands glowing with chakra as she scans his internal organs, making sure that he's still healing properly. He's being discharged today, but is still required to return for regular checkups—it was a serious injury that he sustained, after all.
Her fingers linger on him for a few moments longer than necessary, before she snaps out of it and pulls away. "Well, you're good to go," says. "Just make sure to actually come back twice a month—for real this time."
Neji nods, and sits up and pulls his shirt back on. "I will. Thanks for your time, Sakura." She watches him slide off the bed, briefly run his fingers through his hair to get rid of tangles—and waits for something else to happen.
But nothing does; he nods to her in goodbye, and walks out the door.
Is he…avoiding her?
Shizune taps her on the shoulder two days later as she's processing some lab results. "What happened to Neji?"
"What do you mean?"
"I just processed some papers earlier." The older woman looks slightly perturbed. "He just requested to switch to my medical services from now on."
Sakura can only stare at her, speechless. She's been Neji's medic since—well, actually, since the very first day of her internship. It's been so many years that she can't even recall off the top of her heard how long it's been.
"I don't suppose he said why, did he?" she asks, her voice faint.
"Um." Shizune flips through the stack of papers in her arms, and quotes, "'Personal conflicts cause previous medic in question to provide less than sufficient care.'"
Is he really avoiding her? Or is he…
"Sounds to me like he's mad at you," Shizune remarks, and Sakura's breath catches in her throat.
Between missions and him having a different medic, she doesn't see him for several weeks. It's even worse than Sasuke leaving the village, because she that knows Neji hasn't left the village—she doesn't know when she'll bump into him next, what to do when she does—it's a whole lot more nerve-wracking than for him to desert Konoha to kill the last of his blood.
And somehow it's worse than before; the pangs of missing him are stronger and more frequent—she thinks back to Christmas and her desperate and selfish actions, and she wonders if that has anything to do with how he's acting now.
Sakura is stupid. She is stupid and indecisive and she hasn't grown one bit since she was twelve years old.
And when she enters the Hokage's office for the briefing of her next mission, her blood runs cold.
Yamato is there, along with Naruto—and of course, as the fates would have it, Neji as well. Their eyes lock for a moment before she turns away, quickly. His expression is cold. It sends ominous shivers down her spine.
The briefing lasts no longer than ten minutes; they're out of there and planning their tactics for the next hour, and then they part briefly to gather their belongings, and then they're out of the village. It remains quiet; Yamato and Naruto know that there's tension between Neji and Sakura, and that there's been tension for a very long time. They don't want to be the ones to trigger something explosive.
And Sakura—Sakura hates that Neji, who has been such a good friend up until now, has suddenly cut himself off, so that not even that is left.
(What is she talking about? It's better this way. Isn't this what she wanted?)
They're going to the Lightening Country—a place that holds special memories for her, warm feelings in a frozen land. It seems very different from the last time she came here—maybe because she's different now, too. They crunch through the snow, their flimsy cloaks close to useless in protecting them from the cold.
Yamato looks up at the dark sky, his breath condensing with each puff. "We should set up camp and rest for tonight. We've travelled all day."
"Set up camp?" Neji looks around them. "In the middle of nowhere?"
Oh, that's right. Neji has never worked with Yamato before.
Naruto nearly falls over laughing at Neji's expression when a house literally grows from the ground, complete with rooms for the each of them and even some sparse furniture.
Yamato is panting, but Naruto claps him hard on the back. "Remember the first time you did this for us? There was nothing on the inside! Man, now we even have rooms and beds…" He wanders off into the first bedroom he sees and shuts the door behind him.
Their team leader stares with resentment at the closed door. "He says that like growing such an intricate house is easy."
Neji's emotions are carefully concealed, but Sakura knows he's still staring in awe.
She tugs his cloak gently to grab his attention. "If you have a roof above your head, you might as well take advantage of it. Don't stand out here all night." She knows that any response he gives her will be short and curt, and she isn't sure if she wants to deal with that kind of hurt, so she turns and makes her way down the hallway before he has a chance to say anything.
Her bedroom is sparse, as it usually is; Yamato has given her a bed, and was even kind enough to create a table for her. She drops her things onto it before falling onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
It never goes completely dark outside when there's snow on the ground. Sakura knows that now; the window gives her a little light as she stares at her hair, splayed out on her pillow.
She hears footsteps walking past her door. Neji's chakra signature. And something seizes her, like it's wrapping tightly around her heart and she can't breathe, and then she's lying in bed and tears are streaming from her eyes and she doesn't know why.
(But of course she knows why.)
It's such a cold, cold world without Neji.
Would he still take her back? Does he still care about her? Sakura is almost done fighting. When she first made this decision, she didn't know it would be this hard.
And that's her fault, she supposes. That she's made it so difficult for both her and Neji. Would he forgive her, after all this time? She curls up on her bed and pulls the thin blankets tighter around herself. But after a moment, she untangles herself and gets to her feet.
And then she finds herself at his bedroom door. He knows she's there, because she didn't bother to mask her chakra signature. But she's still stuck outside his door, unable to knock, unable to do anything. Because she still doesn't know if she should continue forward or turn around and walk away. What should she say? What could she say?
She doesn't have the time to make a decision, because the door abruptly opens in front of her. "Do you plan to spend the night outside my room?" Neji's eyes are expressionless. Sakura swallows. When he puts his walls up, he really is like Sasuke.
"No…sorry, I just—" He turns and retreats back into his room, leaving the door open. Uncertain, Sakura follows him. "Neji…?"
His back is facing her, and he's rearranging his weapons. "Do you have something to say?"
"Just that…" And she bows her head, unable to look at him. "Just that I'm sorry."
"For what? Breaking up with me without a proper explanation, or kissing me and then walking away?" She flinches at his harsh words.
"Both, I guess."
He continues to talk, but doesn't turn to face her. "I'm not angry that you broke up with me. I know you had your reasons. But—" His hands fall to a standstill on his weapons. "I will not be made a fool of. You're either in or you're out. You can't just have one foot on either side of the line and hope for some sort of sympathy and the least amount of pain. It may have worked with Sasuke, but it won't work with me."
"That…that wasn't what I intended to do—"
"But it's what happened, Sakura." Now he looks at her, his brow furrowed, and there might be anger on the surface, but underneath that—and her eyes widen as she realizes this—under all of that, Neji is just hurt. She hurt him. "We were together for almost two years. Did you really think that I would leave you if things got a little rocky? Did you really think you meant that little to me?"
"I don't know what I thought—I just—" She pauses then, trying to find the right words. Neji remains silent; he waits. All this time, and he still waits. "I just…didn't want to hurt you more than I would have if I stayed with you."
"Because you also loved Sasuke? I knew that about you before you knew that about you." His voice softens now, his anger draining from him. "I'm all in, Sakura. I've always been all in. Even now."
She stares at him, eyes glassy. "Even now…?"
He looks away indignantly. "It's always been you, I suppose."
"Even after all that I've done to you?"
"I can't help it, can I? I'd very much like to hate you and never talk to you again—" He's interrupted when she all but tackles him with a tight hug. They crash to the floor and he lands on her elbow but she doesn't care because Neji is amazing, he is more than anything she could ever ask for and he's still all hers.
He lies on his back with her on his chest, and his hand finds its way to her hair. "Why are you crying?"
"For being Tsunade's apprentice, you are sometimes still very stupid."
"I'll make it up to you, I promise. I'll make everything up to you."
"Don't be ridiculous." His arms wrap around her, tight. She doesn't think he'll ever allow himself to let go again (and she never, ever wants him to). "You already have."
and a falling together (finally)
Their mission goes without a hitch, and two weeks later, when they step back in Konoha, they are very thankful to finally be able to rest.
Yamato leaves to hand Tsunade their mission report and Naruto bounds straight for Ichiraku (not inviting Sakura, strangely enough—or perhaps not strange at all), leaving her and Neji at Konoha's entrance.
They've worked compatibly together for the duration of their mission and nothing has conspired between them since, since Neji has always been a man of work and Sakura has never wanted to hinder him from that. That didn't stop her itch, though—because like Sai said, she's so much heart and so little brain—and for these past two weeks, all she's wanted to do was spend time with Neji and relearn every inch of him.
"Would you like to"—he sounds as strained as she feels—"like to come over? You haven't been to the compound in a long time, have you?"
(And maybe she's not the only one plagued by that need.)
"You can borrow Hinata-sama's shower," he adds, and that seals the deal.
They walk side by side through the village and through the compound, which is quite a sight for everyone to behold. Under any other circumstances, Sakura would shrink underneath the villagers' gazes, but beside Neji, she isn't scared. She hasn't done anything to be ashamed about.
(Neji's the one who taught her to walk with her chin held high, because she deserves it.)
"You know your way back to my room, I presume," he tells her once he leads her to Hinata's room. She nods. "Then I'll see you after you…look a little tidier."
She punches him lightly, and laughs. "You don't look so great yourself, mister."
He smiles, faintly, before turning and heading back to his own room to get cleaned up. Sakura can't help but watch him as he walks away, broad shoulders and sturdy back. A dependable person. A strong person.
Sakura showers, and she feels new.
She still can't quite believe that it was that easy—that Neji would so willingly take her back, even after what she's done. But maybe it was always supposed to be this easy—maybe she unnecessarily made it difficult for herself. She loved Sasuke, yes—and in ways, maybe she still loves him now. Her twelve-year-old self will never stop loving him, and no matter what age she is or how many years pass, she will never stop missing him and she will never stop mourning his death.
But maybe she's not supposed to. Because Sasuke is as much a part of her as Naruto is, as Kakashi is, as Sai is. Sasuke was her past, but he is not her present anymore and he certainly is not her future. Sakura needs to realize that nothing will be perfect, but that in itself is exactly why things will be perfect.
She wanders through the halls and knocks on Neji's door hesitantly, and hears his faint voice from inside. When she peeks in, she sees him sitting at his table, his feet tucked underneath him and back straight, the perfect image of a well-mannered Hyuuga. He's polishing his hitai-ate, leaving nothing on his forehead but bandages. Sakura enters his room and slides the door shut behind him, joining him at the table but sitting much more comfortably, with her legs crossed instead.
"Not that I don't want to be here, but why did you invite me over?" she asks timidly, after a moment of silence.
"Would you like to see?" His voice is controlled and slightly tense. "I told myself…if we ever somehow got back together, I would show you."
Sakura has a vague idea about what he's talking about, but she can't be sure. "Show me what?"
Neji takes his time to neatly fold up his hitai-ate and place it on the table. Sakura holds her breath. Then, he raises his hands to his head, and begins to untie the bandages. She covers her mouth to hide her jaw dropping gracelessly.
She's seen his seal only once before, years ago during her first chuunin exam. But she was far away and hardly caught any of the details. Now, though, Neji's bandages fall to his lap and he is laid bare, truly bare now—his shame, his disappointment, everything about himself that he hates. "Can I…?" She's, oddly enough, breathless.
He nods, and she gets on her knees to crawl over to him. He remains still as stone as her fingers touch his forehead, tentatively—and then curiosity takes over and her chakra flares up, probing, searching. She's always wanted to know how the seal is able to kill, how it's connected to the neurons of the brain—she knows it's cruel but the medic in her is so morbidly curious, and she can't stop herself from searching and learning.
When she finally withdraws, Neji is very tense. She pushes away all new knowledge to mull over later, and leans in to kiss his forehead—and he relaxes, if only fractionally.
"I think," she takes his hands and squeezes them, "that it's a part of you, and you shouldn't hate it."
"I could die at any moment. I don't get to choose my own death. You could leave here in a few hours and that might be the last time we'll ever see each other, and I'll be gone before tomorrow morning."
"Yes," she agrees. "And that sucks. But…" Her thumbs brush over his knuckles. "That's not all that defines you. There is so much more to you and that seal is tiny, it's nothing compared to all of that. Please don't hate yourself for it." She reaches up and her palm cups his cheek. He leans against her touch, imperceptibly, eyelashes fluttering against his skin when he blinks. "Do you…" And she hesitates then. "Do you want to hear about Sasuke-kun?"
His eyes are soft, the way snow often falls on quiet winter evenings. "Only if you want to talk about him. You don't ever have to tell me, if you don't want to."
Sakura is unsure, but he just showed her his seal; it must have been momentous for him. She can't imagine ever doing something like that without expecting something in return. And Neji deserves to know about Sasuke, sooner or later—after all, he is—was—such a big part of her. She couldn't just turn a blind eye to him. It'd be unfair for both Neji and Sasuke.
So she sits comfortably and tries to explain, tries to describe Sasuke the way she saw him—as a lost boy, a broken boy, one she's always wanted to fix and love even if it meant nothing in return. The world has never seen him that way and she thinks it's unfair, because they never knew him like she did, or Naruto did. They never watched him train until he couldn't move anymore, they never saw him cave in on himself because he couldn't stand on his own under the weight of the worthlessness he felt. No one ever saw the Sasuke that she saw and she knows that no one ever will, but she would at least like Neji to try to understand why she so blindly loved the person everyone else thought was a monster.
And he does try, she knows—she sees the conflict in him, and although he still doesn't quite agree with her, he's trying, and for now, that is enough.
"I never quite understood," he says after she falls quiet, her mouth dry and voice almost hoarse. "Why you never gave up on him. But maybe I do, a little now."
"You just wanted to protect him, right? We all have someone we want to protect. Thank you for telling me, Sakura. I've always been curious, but never wanted to ask."
"I don't think I was ready until just now. But I want you to know," and she's earnest now, staring at him with wide and sincere eyes, "that I don't love him anymore. It's just you now, Neji—you're the only person I want."
She can't see it on his lips, but there is a soft smile in his voice. "Don't say things you don't mean, Sakura. Of course you still love him. You'll never stop."
"But it's true though, I don't—" He cuts her off with a quick but brief kiss.
"I don't mind that part of your heart belongs to a dead man. All of me belongs to my clan, after all. It's not even a fair trade."
Sakura really doesn't think she loves Sasuke anymore, but Neji is so insistent that she still does that she doesn't argue with him, and sits with a slight frown adorning her lips instead.
"You only belong to your clan if you allow yourself to," she points out. "You belong to yourself, Neji. Stop pretending like you can't do anything about your life and taking the easy way out."
He chuckles then, quietly. "I suppose you're right."
She blinks. "I am?"
"Are you purposely saying something that you think is wrong?"
Neji turns away to gaze out the window. "I always knew I could fight the clan, take back my life in the little ways, but I suppose I never found it worth doing if you weren't with me. Which, in retrospect—and even now—seems incredibly pathetic, but what is there to do? I can't go back and change things."
"Your life revolves around me too much," she teases, poking his cheek. He scowls.
Sakura laughs at his indignity, and although it's still a little unbelievable that she can be with him like this again, she's slowly remembering what it's like to be happy, wholly and truly. She didn't realize she missed it this much until now. How did she ever live without Neji by her side?
He gives her a strange look for grinning widely at his retort, but she wouldn't be able to wipe it off her face even if she tried.
(And maybe this time, she'll finally get it right.)
i was never meant for anyone else
The second time around, somehow, is so much better than the first. Retracing Neji's jawline, poking fun at his pet peeves that she's forgotten about, and remembering that he doesn't mind sweets but can't stand the sticky texture of dango, is so much more exciting. Sakura didn't think she would, but she's falling in love all over again.
The first time she fell for Neji was because of her dependence on him. She missed Sasuke and Neji happened to be right there, she she reached out for him and used him as a shield from herself. But it's different now—because she's finally found herself and he doesn't need to be in front of her, protecting her from harm's way anymore. Now he's behind her, lending her strength when she needs it.
He is still territorial and meticulous and cold and warm and tender and afraid all at the same time, still multi-faceted, fascinating, astonishing, extraordinarily beautiful. She still has trouble believing that—
"What are you staring at?" He peers at her over their lunch, and she realizes that she hasn't put a single bite in her mouth for the last several minutes. "Is there something on my face?"
"What, I'm not allowed to look at you without a reason to?"
"It's slightly creepy, is all."
Sakura stands up and leans over the table, and kisses him as he's halfway through chewing his current bite of food. He pulls away abruptly and chokes.
"Don't do that! We're in public!"
"So? Why are you suddenly acting so shy?"
The tips of Neji's ears flush red. "It's improper, you idiot."
"Improper, my ass." And just to prove her point, she kisses him again.
"Sakura, stop it!"
Nuzzling his nose, she says, "I don't want to waste a single moment in letting you know that you are loved."
And, rightfully, Neji shuts up at that.
"If we ever have children," he says one day, and that has Sakura casting cautious eyes in his direction. "I'm not saying we have to," he amends, "but if it ever happens, and if we ever have a son…can we name him Hizashi?"
"Hyuuga Hizashi was my father's name."
Sakura's previously tense shoulders relax at this, and she smiles. "Of course we can," she tells him. "I think that's a beautiful name."
They're sitting in the training grounds, watching Tenten and Lee spar with each other. The shade of the trees protects them from the hot sun; it's only spring, but Konoha warms up fast.
"It's your birthday soon," Neji states after a few moments of silence.
"Yeah," she agrees. "That happens every year, doesn't it? What a nuisance."
He laughs, as gentle as the chirping of birds in the distance. "For shinobi, how old you are signifies how skilled you are on the battlefield. It is something to be celebrated."
"No girl likes aging," she grumbles.
"I beg to differ." She shoots him a glare. "You only get better with age."
"I don't even want to know what that means." She pauses in contemplation, and says, "So Neji…if you've already gone as far as thinking about what you want to name our son, then…does that mean you want to get married?"
A long, long silence follows. "No," he says, decisively.
"…Oh." Sakura is fairly certain she's supposed to feel upset, except his fingers are still curled around hers, resting together on the grass. She isn't quite sure what to make of his response. "You don't want to get married, but you want children?"
She hasn't even thought that far ahead yet. Sakura knows that she probably will never want anyone but Neji, but to think about their futures? About marriage? About children? A lot of shinobi don't even have futures. It's never been something Sakura was concerned about. She doesn't even know if she wants children—not if they have to be born in a world like this.
"I don't want children," Neji denies. "I just said, if we have children."
It's a moment more, before she says, "You make no sense. Don't talk about naming our future children if you don't want any."
Neji huffs and turns away, his attention focusing on his teammates, who are still sparring without any idea of what they're talking about. Sakura's grip tightens around his hand, if only minutely, and hopes he doesn't slip away.
what's in a name
(Sometimes, there is no future. Sometimes, there is no anything—there is no Sasuke and there is no seal branded on his forehead—there is nothing and it's just the two of them.
There is only the way he kisses her neck, and the way her fingers flutter down his sides. Or the way his hair tickles her skin, or the way she sinks down onto him slowly, both of them holding their breaths and shuddering.
And although that is no way to live, Sakura doesn't mind if it's once in a while. To drown in Neji is like drifting off into a dream, where you can't tell time and everything moves so slow and so fast at the same time. She runs her fingers through his hair and pulls, and he rolls her over so she's on her back, and he moves and she moves and how could she even care about anything else if this is happening right now?
"Love you," she whispers afterwards when they're lying in her bed, the sheets pulled up all the way over their heads. The sunlight filters through, making his hair glow a warm brown. Her fingers ghost over the green on his forehead, as green as her eyes.
He reaches out to pull her close, skin against skin, and she shivers. "You better.")
flying in orbit around your stronghold gravity
Except four months later, in the sweltering summer heat, Sakura faces an interesting situation.
"I thought you didn't want to get married," is the only response she gives to Neji, who is on one knee. They're at her favorite takoyaki stand and she still has some remnants of food in her mouth and this is definitely not what she expected to follow his incredibly long, very sappy and slightly dull speech.
Neji blinks. The takoyaki stand owner chooses wisely to remain silent.
"That was a lie, of course," he sputters. "Because if I told you I did, you'd just suggest to get married. My chance to propose properly would have gone down the drain."
Sakura can't even begin to comprehend what goes on in that brain of his.
"Get up, people are staring." She pulls him to his feet. He's still flabbergasted at how little of a reaction she had. "Of course I'll marry you, stupid. How could I not, after all that we've been through?" She plucks the velvet box out of his hand to inspect the ring a little closer. "I'll never be able to wear this enough, between my hospital shifts and missions. How much did it cost?"
"T-That's irrelevant, Sakura."
The ring is a thin silver band with a small diamond embedded into it; a typical ring, subtle and tasteful—Sakura can see why he chose it. In the midst of Neji's disbelief, she takes it and slips it onto her finger. It's a little loose, but it'll stay.
She kisses him lightly. He still doesn't know what to say. "Does it really matter, how you propose? What's important is just that I say yes, right?"
"Everything must done properly," he replies stiffly.
"Oh. In that case…" Sakura takes the ring off and places it back into the box, and shoves it into his hand. "Get on your knee again." She almost laughs when he does as he's told, holding the ring out to her. She leans down and pulls him into a long kiss; teeth and tongue and his face held tightly in her hands.
Forget about laughing—this isn't even funny. She's having her breath taken away. But it seems like it's also having the same effect on Neji, so she doesn't mind as much.
"Yes," she says softly against his mouth. "The answer will always be yes."
"I'm glad," he murmurs, and slips the ring onto her finger, the way he wanted to in the first place.
When he finally stands up again, the takoyaki stand owner congratulations them with a wide grin on his face. Sakura's face turns red, feeling like she's already fulfilling the role of the blushing bride.
Sakura. Hyuuga Sakura. Hm…
A few minutes later, when they're walking down the street, she tugs at Neji's fingers. "Can I keep my last name?"
here is your fairytale ending
Of three things, Sakura is certain:
Her younger self would have absolutely adored the process of planning a wedding. Ino and Lee (a surprising combination, but absolute beasts when it comes to being wedding planners) do most of the work, but they consult Neji and Sakura for everything beforehand, from the location to the date to the color scheme and the theme and the number of people attending—Sakura nearly goes dizzy from all of that information, and even forgets for extended periods of time that she is a kunoichi and a medic first, not Neji's bride-to-be.
It will take quite some time before her family gets used to the Hyuuga clan. Her parents are all she has; they moved to Konoha after the last war from the modest Tea Country, and thus haven't had many experiences with shinobi until the later part of their lives. After a few visits, her mother had finally gotten used to Neji having no pupils, but seeing an entire room full of people like that made her go pale.
And lastly, of course: she can't wait.
While the wedding itself feels like an impending horror, Sakura is not afraid, she is not anxious. She pushed Neji away once, and once was all she needed—it is him and it will always be him.
She is a little sad though, that Sasuke isn't alive to witness this. She wants him to know that she's moved on from him—that he is still someone she holds dear, but merely an echo of her past. She wants him to see that she's okay now, and that she's no longer the girl who spends lonely nights crying over someone who will never come home.
But maybe he's always known that it would come to this—maybe that's why he left her on the bench that night. Maybe Sasuke always knew what Sakura took years to realize: that when the time came, she truly wouldn't need him anymore.
And although she would love to talk with him and ask him all of those questions, it can wait—after she's lived a proper life without him in it.
After she's lived a life with Neji.
nothing is easier than this
"Are you sure you feel fine?" Sai slaps his hand to her forehead for the nth time in the past hour. "No anxiety?"
"No, Sai! Now stop doing that, or I'm going to break your hand!" She swats the offensive appendage away from her face. "If I'm going to be anxious about anything, it'll be you and Naruto destroying the place before Neji and I even get a chance to exchange our vows."
Sai frowns, finally accepting her decisive answer. "Strange," he murmurs. "Most women experience jitters of some sort before their wedding."
"Do I seem like most women to you?" she asks flatly.
"On the contrary," he tells her, quite honestly, "I think you look much more charming in your regular attire. Wedding robes do not suit you."
Luckily for Sai, Ino does the punching for Sakura, which causes him much less damage than what he could have sustained otherwise. Sakura huffs and turns away, even if there is some truth ringing in his words. These wedding robes are pretty, but they look and feel uncomfortable on her, a woman who spends most of her days wearing shorts or any attire that allows for quick and easy maneuvering.
Courtesy of Ino, her hair is done up with a cherry blossom brooch, and there is even some makeup dusting her cheeks. It all makes Sakura feel very delicate, and she's cautious to even move. Ino strictly told her not to touch her own face.
Sakura sighs. She would have done just as well with a small wedding, but of course, Neji wanted to go all out. The entire Hyuuga clan is out there, along with half of the village.
(According to Ino, there are a few well known couples throughout the village. One: Naruto and Hinata, since Hinata's been in love with Naruto for so long that literally everyone knew before Naruto did. Two: Shikamaru and Temari, because they may be the first long distance shinobi couple in the history of ever, and they're holding out pretty well, too. And three: Neji and Sakura. Because, as Ino says, the entire village watched them grow up, fall apart, and fall seamlessly back together. So it's only natural that most of the village would attend their wedding.
Sakura just vows to warn anyone else who is foolish enough to let Ino plan their wedding.)
She can't say that she hates weddings, but…actually, after all that she's gone through for her own, yeah, she hates weddings.
Was it Ino who decided to have the wedding in December, too? Sakura is freezing.
She continues to grouse to herself as chaos happens all around her, last minute preparations and Sai being shoved out of the room, a few finishing touches to her makeup, and finally—
"Go, Sakura! It's your turn!"
What? So quickly?
Against her wishes, she's ushered to her feet and led outside (the ceremony is held outside in the middle of winter, those fuckers), down a short street of the Hyuuga compound. All she can think about is how long the ceremony will approximately take before she can dash back inside again to warm up, when she turns the corner and sees half of the village sitting on long benches, row after row.
Hyuuga clan members, civilians, hospital colleagues, shinobi colleagues, teachers, friends—and her father standing there waiting for her, grey already overtaking the pink hair he used to hate so much before he had her.
Holding out his arm to her, ready to give her away.
And Neji at the end of the aisle, stunning in his own robes, his hitai-ate absent from his forehead. Because today, he is not a shinobi. Today, he is not a soldier.
And this ceremony could take forever on this frozen winter afternoon, but Sakura lost the will to care.
extraordinary in its ordinariness
And then it calms down.
Life goes on, as it was always going to. Neji continues to go on extended ANBU missions, and Sakura continues to both save and take lives. After much argument, Sakura finally moves into the Hyuuga compound, but still keeps her apartment, much to Neji's displeasure. "You don't need it anymore," he had told her.
It may be true that she doesn't need it anymore, but it feels like her sanctuary. She's still not used to the compound yet; it's somewhat stifling. She's never alone. Around every corner is another Hyuuga. Sometimes, if she's lucky, it'll be Hinata that she bumps into—but even that's rare, because Hinata is the heiress. Sakura lives with the branch family.
But this, too, shall pass. Everything does. And even in the constantly lively compound, the room she shares with Neji is always quiet.
They sleep in a futon though. That took some getting used to.
Everything else outside of her home life is painfully normal, and that's a sign for Sakura that she's doing something right. As long as her friends aren't dying and the village isn't being torn apart, then she doesn't care if things get boring and redundant.
And anyway, things aren't exactly boring. Not when she's figuring out how to live with Neji, how to fit their showering schedule together (they both like to shower in the morning and they always wake up at the same time, it's actually infuriating), and how to deal with each other twenty-four-seven. Before marrying him, Sakura had spent nights with Neji and he'd slept over before, but never for long periods of time. It's both new and oddly comforting, to know that she can always find him when she needs him.
They don't always get to see each other because of missions, but when they do, they make the most of it. Neji even likes to sleep in on Sunday mornings, all the way until ten o'clock.
This is the life Sakura has always been dreaming of. This is the life she always knew she wanted, but when she was younger, she just didn't know with who. But now she does.
This beautiful, ordinary life is her dream come true.
wailing, smelly, gross, you actually want one of those?
"Neji? Have you seen my hitai-ate?" She peeks her head into the kitchen where her husband is. "I can't find it anywhere."
Neji's back is facing her, but she can still see him jump in surprise. When he turns to face her, he keeps his hands clasped behind his back. "It's not on the drawer?"
Sakura narrows her eyes, hitai-ate forgotten. "What are you hiding?"
He takes one step back. "Nothing."
Naturally, she doesn't believe him. Neji eyes her warily, barely avoiding her attack when she launches off her feet to tackle him down. She uses the counter to redirect herself in his direction, and they both fall to the tiled kitchen floor with a loud thump.
"Let me see!"
"It's nothing important!"
"It is if you're going to these lengths to hide it from me!" They tussle for several moments before she finally stands victorious, holding in her hand—
…A piece of cloth?
Upon closer inspection, Sakura finally looks at Neji again, who's readjusting his clothes and fixing his hair. "Neji…why do you have baby clothes?"
He looks away. "One of my aunts gave it to me. They said they're excited."
"D-Do I look pregnant to them?"
"Absolutely not! But they would like you to. Soon, apparently."
Sakura stares at the one-piece outfit in her hands, reveling in how tiny it is. She doesn't know if she wants children yet—especially with her kind of profession. But to imagine a tiny human being, as small as these clothes, in her arms—it sparks a strange warmth in her, and suddenly, she isn't so sure anymore. She's only ever had that one conversation with Neji about having children, before he proposed to her, but never again after that. She doesn't know if he's ready yet, either.
"Do you want one?" she asks quietly. "Soon."
"It's a two person-decision, of course. We don't ever need to have one, if you don't want to." But his eyes betray him. Neji wants a child. Maybe he's always wanted one; he's proper and traditional. After marriage, of course, comes the baby.
She glances at the fabric in her hand again. "But…why is it yellow?" The bright color reminds her of Naruto's horrid fashion sense.
"A unisex color, apparently," Neji sniffs.
Ever since she's known how to, Sakura had controlled her ovulation—or, in better words, stopped it—through medical jutsu. No use for menstruation and wasting her limited number of ovum if she doesn't intend to have children anyway. It's an easy task for any female medic.
But maybe it's time to stop that. She doesn't want to purposely try to have a baby with Neji, but if it happens, it happens. Sakura has never cared much for children, but if it's with Neji, she's sure it'll be worth it.
She tosses the clothes back to him. "Well," she says, "even if we do have one, I am not letting it wear that horrid color."
"My thoughts exactly." Neji looks at it like a poor diseased animal. "Do you suppose we can conveniently 'lose' it?"
"Behind the cabinet in the drawing room?"
"Okay. You go do that—I still need to find my hitai-ate." She knows he wants to ask her what her thoughts are about having a baby, but she waltzes out of the kitchen before he gets a chance to. Some things are better if they're a surprise, after all.
only sakura-chan can tame the fearsome hyuuga neji!
"We never did have a honeymoon, you know," she hums one day as she's providing their weapons with their regular maintenance.
"Would you like to?" A few feet away from her, Neji is folding the laundry.
"I've never really cared about traveling much, considering how much I have to do it anyway, but it'd be nice if it was just for leisure, wouldn't it? Just for a week or two."
"I don't think Hokage-sama would be opposed to that."
"Let's go to the Frost Country!"
"Frost Country? Why a little place like that?"
Sakura shrugs. "I don't know. I like going to cold places—especially since it's never that cold around here." After all, most of her memories in snowy lands include Neji, whose eyes match the environment perfectly. Picturesque and untouched. "Where do you want to go?"
"The ocean, perhaps? I never got a chance to truly enjoy it."
"Oh, that's perfect, then! Let's go to the Frost Country!" She lifts her head to look at him excitedly, but all thoughts of their honeymoon temporarily fly out of her head when she sees Neji.
He's sitting there, perplexed (and appearing as though he's been sitting that way for a while, now), holding one of her bras in his hands.
"Neji? Is something the matter?"
"…How do you fold these?"
Sakura's stomach hurts. She's laughing so hard she can't breathe.
"It's not funny, Sakura," Neji hisses, the tips of his ears flaming red. She knows that he's the last person who finds this funny, but she just can't stop laughing—not even when people are stopping to stare at her with strange looks.
"But—but it's just…!" She clutches onto his arm to keep herself from falling over, and he reluctantly holds her steady. Maybe she would shut up if he dropped her into the snow. "He thought you were a girl! He hit on you!" And then she doubles over all over again, absolutely positive that she's going to suffocate and die. "Someone actually thought you were a girl from behind!"
Neji grasps her wrist and pulls her into a nearby alleyway, where less people can see them. "I understand that it might be slightly humorous that I look effeminate from behind, but—are you even listening to me?" She has her arms around his neck and is laughing into his shoulder. "My ego is taking a huge hit right now."
"Relax, he wasn't even a"—giggle—"shinobi. You're ten times the man he is."
"Then why are you laughing?"
"Because! The look on your face! You thought he was talking to me and you were ready to tell him off, but when you realized it was you he was…!" And laughter. Again.
Neji sighs, holding her steady by the waist, before his hands trail down to cup her backside. Her laughter ceases immediately, and she even hiccups in surprise. "Then," he whispers in her ear, suave, seductive, "would you like me to remind you why you chose me, and not someone like him?" He squeezes, and subconsciously, as if on instinct, her hips roll against his.
"By all means," she breathes against his jawline, pressing kisses all the way to his mouth. All previous humor has dissipated in the blink of an eye, and although she knows Neji doesn't like public displays of affection, he seems to not mind this time as their mouths meet in this little alleyway in the cold and beautiful Frost Country.
(Needless to say, it takes great control and patience on both of their parts to make it back to the inn with any shred of decency.)
this tiny little thing growing to be so big and so precious
Sakura bites her lip, worried. "Should I wait?"
"Why should you wait?" Sai asks. "It will not go away if you simply ignore it."
"Wait," Naruto affirms. "You need to prepare yourself. And him, too."
Kakashi hums, looking thoroughly amused.
"You guys aren't helpful!" Sakura wails.
Ino bops her over the head. "Of course you wait! What if it's a false alarm? And even if it's not, I bet he's not even ready for it. I bet he'll faint."
"It's not a false alarm, Ino, I'm a medic. I'm not going to think a foreign chakra signature in my uterus is anything but a foreign chakra signature in my uterus."
"It could be a tumor," Ino supplies. It's Sakura's turn to bop her over the head.
It's been two weeks since Sakura has felt strange, and a few days since she's finally been able to discern that what's lodged right inside her is, in fact, not a tumor, but a fetus. It hasn't even been a month since she and Neji returned from the Frost Country, so it must have been conceived there, considering how much they—well. Yeah.
"Man, but can you believe that?" Naruto muses. "Our Sakura-chan. All grown up and pregnant. You're going to look like a planet soon!"
"Shut up or I'll make a planet grow on your head."
She's holding an emergency meeting with her closest friends at a teahouse, the smell of tea and dango wafting in the air. Of course, she doesn't know why she's doing so, because clearly, none of them are the least bit constructive.
"Neji could faint," Kakashi finally says. "I could see that happening."
"Or he could cry." Sai smiles.
Naruto snickers. "I bet he's going to scream."
"So I should wait then, right? I don't even know how I'm going to tell him. To be honest, it hasn't even really sunk in for me yet, either."
It all feels so surreal to her. Pregnancy and motherhood is something common with civilians, but she's rarely seen it amongst kunoichi. All of this used to feel so far off for her—after all, she's only twenty-four, which may be a perfectly viable reproducing age, but she certainly doesn't feel like she's ready for any of that yet. After all, none of her friends are anywhere near that stage: Naruto and Hinata are only newly engaged, Ino is still in the process of dating Genma (Sakura still can't believe it's a thing that's happening), and Kakashi and Sai—well, Kakashi and Sai. Two uninterested men who may continue to be uninterested until the day they die.
Kakashi reaches across the table and ruffles her hair. "Well, whatever you do, I'm happy for you. Congratulations."
She grins. "Thanks."
"Let's throw a baby shower!" Naruto exclaims.
"I think it's still a bit early for that," Sai remarks. "What is customary at a time like this? Gifts?"
Her friends continue to discuss baby related things, but Sakura zones out, concentrating on the little life inside of her. It feels small, but strong—warm. And promising.
She rests her hand on her stomach, and doesn't feel one shred of regret.
i'm going to go crazy before this thing pops
A week later, though, and she doesn't know to keep it to herself anymore. She's set herself on a strict diet, cutting out caffeine and anything else unhealthy, and "I just don't feel like coffee this morning" isn't going to cut it with Neji anymore, considering that she's nearly falling over from exhaustion because she's still not used to having no caffeine in her system.
So she sits him down in the kitchen one evening when everyone else has retired to their rooms for the night, her heart pounding in her ribcage. "I have a confession to make," she says. "Well, not really a confession, since I didn't do anything wrong…"
Neji raises an eyebrow. "Does this have anything to do with your sudden repulsion towards caffeine?"
"Sort of. Yes. Well, I'm not repulsed by it—I actually really miss it." She tries to blink the sleep out of her eyes. Dammit, it's not even ten o'clock yet.
"Sakura? Are you alright?"
"Yeah, just a little lightheaded…" She barely registers Neji's eyes widening before everything fades to black.
When she opens her eyes next, she's in her shared futon with Neji, the thick blanket tucked snugly around her. She turns her head to see Neji sitting cross-legged beside her, his hitai-ate and bandages undone, running a brush through his hair.
His eyes are stained with worry. "Are you alright? You haven't come down with something, have you?"
Well, that could be one way to put it. "No, I'm fine." She struggles to sit up, but he immediately motions for her to stay lying down. "I'm just not used to the same workload but not drinking coffee. My body will get used to it eventually."
"Are you on some sort of cleanse, or something?"
"Sort of. Neji, I have to tell you something—"
"You can tell me when you feel better." A smile ghosts across his lips. "Get some rest first." Sakura opens her mouth to protest, but Neji leans down and gives her a quick kiss. "I'll let Hokage-sama know that you won't be going to the hospital tomorrow."
"But I don't need a day off…"
Of course, though, Neji being Neji, he pays her no heed. Sakura stares up at the ceiling, and sighs.
the three of us
A few days later, and the morning sickness begins. Nearly every day, at six in the morning, she bolts to the bathroom and hurls into the toilet, and is unable to go back to sleep afterwards. Sometimes it happens a little later—maybe eight in the morning—and during those times, Neji holds up her hair as she clutches the toilet, panting.
"Are you sure you don't need to see Hokage-sama?" he asks, worried. "You're not sick, are you?"
"What does it look like to you?" she mutters, pulling away from the toilet when her stomach finally stops doing nauseous flips.
"It looks like you're sick," he says flatly.
Sakura gets to her feet and rinses her mouth out. Well, at least she's finally adjusting to a no-caffeine diet. "I have to tell you something," she tells him for the nth time in the past several days.
Neji, who has finally had enough of putting her health before this thing that she so desperately has to tell him, finally sighs. "Okay. What is it?"
She leans back against the counter and braces herself against it. "I'm pregnant," she tells him—those two words she rehearsed over and over again, so little but so big and encompassing so many feelings that she would never be able to fully describe.
There is a long, long silence, where Neji is just staring at her. But he doesn't faint, or cry, or scream.
Instead, he wordlessly gets on his knees. His hands grasp the counter for support, and then he presses his ear against Sakura's stomach, his eyes fluttering shut.
Sakura holds her breath.
"You won't be able to feel anything for a while," she whispers, her voice having gone somewhere.
"I know," he replies, just as quiet. "But I just…" His hands leave the counter and hold her hips instead. Something swells up inside Sakura and she swallows. This moment, right here, is everything she never knew she wanted. "Do you think it's a boy? Or a girl?"
She smiles softly, every trace of morning sickness gone. "I don't know yet," she says, and gently smooths down his hair. "Be patient."
He presses a kiss to her stomach. "I'm going to be a dad."
"Yeah. You're going to be a dad."
And in the next moment, he's stood up and swept her off her feet, spinning her in circles. "And you're going to be a mom." He's clutching her so tightly she can hardly breathe.
She hugs him back, just as hard. "I'm going to be a mom!"
turn your black holes into supernovas
The months of Sakura's pregnancy are both the best and the worst of her life.
The best because of the excitement, because every day, she's feeling this little life inside of her growing stronger and stronger. They're the best because even though she is becoming a planet like Naruto had said, everyone is congratulating her, and Neji is the happiest that she's ever seen him.
They're also the worst months of her life because at four months, when her bulge barely even started showing, Tsunade prohibited her from any and all missions, and actually forced her into maternity leave. Sakura managed to keep working at the hospital for two more months before the Hokage even kept her from that—which meant that the remaining three months she spent idling about, helping out in the Yamanaka shop, and imposing on her parents.
It's a girl. Neji was slightly put out at this at first, because they wouldn't be able to name her Hizashi, but that didn't last for long. "A girl as strong and amazing as her mother," he had said, kissing Sakura's forehead. "We'll try again for a boy next time."
"Next time?" she had exclaimed. "Do you even know how hard it is to grow one of these things inside of you? Don't treat it like you're planting carrots!"
(But maybe one more would be okay. After all, she wouldn't want their daughter to be too lonely when they're away on missions.)
Shizuka, they had decided. After Sakura's grandmother. Hyuuga Shizuka.
A quiet, but beautiful and respectable name. Sakura would want nothing less for her child.
Neji spends evenings just sitting with his ear pressed to her belly. Sometimes, Shizuka kicks—and Sakura laughs, because it never fails to startle him. He spends nights sleeping beside her, a hand always against her stomach, as if already practicing how to sleep with a third family member in between them. Sakura never ceases to be amazed at how Neji changed over the years. She would have never expected, all that time ago, that the cold, callous child would become someone so confident and so loving all at the same time.
They've all grown, she supposes. She especially remembers this whenever she wakes up to Naruto's screaming in the hallway. He's married Hinata and moved in as well (and by some twist of fate, they're actually, properly family now), and even though he's all the way where the main family is, he never fails to come over several times a week just to have breakfast with her before he leaves for the day.
That scrawny little Naruto who used to paint on the cliff faces and couldn't even do a proper transformation jutsu, now tall with broad shoulders and, if the rumors are true, is the next in line to be Hokage. (Which is actually the only reason the Hyuuga elders even allowed him to marry Hinata, apparently. Sakura still thinks it's ridiculous.)
Sometimes she wonders, but she rarely does, what Sasuke would think if he saw them now.
And then she thinks, as Hinata makes her tea with honey and Naruto bickers with Neji about how to properly change a baby girl's diaper, that it doesn't really matter.
this isn't just some d-rank mission, you inconsiderate ass
Having been a medic for over ten years, the only reaction she has to her water breaking is: "Oh. Neji? Shizuka's coming."
Which, of course, has Neji absolutely freaking out.
It is a breezy March morning, surprisingly close to Sakura's own birthday, that Shizuka arrives. The first two hours of contractions are generally bearable, but after that, she argues with Neji for fifteen minutes about wanting drugs.
"It's not good for Shizuka!" Neji shouts. "You're a kunoichi; you've experienced worse. You can have a child or two without drugs."
"You asshole, you know how small of an entrance that is!" she screeches, even elaborating by showing with her fingers. "Something this big coming out of something that small—you don't even want to imagine, Neji, so just let Tsunade-sama give me the damn drugs!"
Neji continues to put up a fight until her next contraction hits and she screams, right in the middle of her sentence. It literally feels like she's being torn apart from the inside out. Her husband goes pale and finally nods frantically to Tsunade, who rolls her eyes and administers the anesthetic for Sakura.
"Next time," Sakura says hoarsely to him, "you can push this thing out of you, if you think it's so easy."
He swallows. "You can hold my hand, if it helps."
It doesn't, but at least it gives her some sense of satisfaction when she squeezes it so hard that she may have actually fractured a few bones.
as bright as day
"But still, though. How did this come out of you?"
"I'm beginning to think Naruto-oji is a bad influence," Hinata remarks, gently taking Shizuka from his arms.
Sakura doesn't care much for their conversation—she's still too busy enjoying the fact that she can finally drink coffee again, after nine months of torture. It's like liquid fire down her throat: too much and she gets jittery, because she's not used to it yet.
Hyuuga Shizuka is, actually, the spitting image of her father. Nothing in her appearances tells anyone that Haruno Sakura is her mother. She has fine, dark hairs on her head and those snowy eyes, large but lazy and more often than not, always blinking and sleepy. The elders have already been talking—that a child of Neji would be just as talented as her father, and master her Byakugan just as quickly.
Their next child, Sakura had promised Neji. Whether it's another daughter or a son, their next child will have pink hair.
"I need to get out of the village," she moans, sprawling on the kitchen table. "I've been stuck here for the past six months. If I don't get a breather, I'm going to tear this place down."
"Do you hear that, Shizuka-chan?" Naruto coos to her daughter, who just stares back at him with eerily blank eyes. "Your mommy's going to tear this village down."
Sakura downs the rest of her coffee and throws the mug at Naruto's head.
She loves Shizuka more than she ever thought she could—a mother's love, she supposes—but that doesn't stop the exhaustion from hitting. The first few weeks are always the worst, and Sakura is feeling the full force of it. She and Neji take turns caring for Shizuka, and even the other clan members help out—but, as expected, it doesn't take the stress away. Sakura just needs a breather. Even if it's just for a day, she needs to leave the village.
"By the way, Sakura," Hinata says, "Asuka-baa-san wanted me to pass along a message…something about some baby clothes she gave you and Neji-nii-san a long time ago?"
Sakura blinks. "Could those clothes, by any chance, be…yellow?"
"They could have been," Hinata says thoughtfully. "She didn't mention what color they were."
"Akamaru ate them. Tell Asuka-baa-chan I'm sorry."
The Hyuuga heiress blinks. "Strange…I thought Akamaru stopped eating weird things years ago…"
Naruto narrows his eyes in suspicion at Sakura, but she just threatens to throw something else at his head.
bloop bloop bloop
She returns from a simple messenger mission to quite an interesting sight.
Neji arguing with his daughter about what seems to be…baby food.
"Just eat it even if you don't like it," Neji commands Shizuka. "You must learn discipline. You must endure what you do not like." Shizuka looks close to tears, her large, pale eyes already shining wetly. "Come on, just eat! You haven't eaten anything all day!"
Sakura knocks on the doorframe to alert Neji of her presence, and her husband jumps in his seat. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
Neji glances at their daughter, guilty. "I seem to be having trouble…feeding her…"
She sighs and walks over to pick Shizuka up. Their daughter babbles delightedly, nestling into her shoulder (and wiping drool all over her clothes in the process). "I told you she doesn't like the carrot ones," she reprimands. "Why don't you listen to me? She likes peas."
"Peas are repulsive," Neji mutters. "And anyway, she needs to learn that not everything is going to go smoothly in life!"
Sakura gives herself two moments to take a deep breath. "She's three months old."
"There is a critical period for when children learn," he sniffs.
"The critical period lasts for years." And never mind the critical period, since when did Neji start reading up on child psychology? "I think we can keep Shizuka on pea baby food for a while. Right, Shizuka?" She talks to their daughter now, her voice becoming much sweeter and more pleasant. "Let's ignore Daddy. Let's get you some real food."
"Carrots are real food!"
whomp whomp whomp
"When are you going to use your Byakugan?" Sakura murmurs to Shizuka as she softly scrubs her hair with soap during their weekly shared bath time. "Neji said he first activated his when he was six."
Shizuka isn't even two yet, so of course, her daughter doesn't give much of a response other than splashing the soapy water and getting some in Sakura's face. But then again, her being two is the exact reason why Sakura can still share a bathtub with her and not have it be weird.
(Neji eyes her with envy every time this happens, and while Sakura says he's just as capable of bathing with her, he refuses to because Shizuka is a girl.
"…She's your daughter."
"A girl nevertheless."
"You really want a son, don't you?")
"You know, Shizuka," Sakura continues, but it's more to herself than to anyone else, "you don't have to be a kunoichi if you don't to. Yeah, it's awesome, but there are some not-so-awesome about it things too. I would totally be fine with it if you didn't want to do that. You could use your Byakugan for other things! Like…design and architecture. Is the Byakugan applicable for that?"
Shizuka makes spit bubbles with her mouth.
"Although, I suppose, your daddy wouldn't be so happy with that."
Sighing, Sakura continues to scrub her daughter. She's going to need a haircut soon. When did Sakura get so domestic? She used to kick ass on the battlefield and save lives.
Well, she still does that. But by night now, she's singing lullabies and changing diapers.
"Time to rinse off and dry up!" Sakura gathers Shizuka in her arms and manages to stand up in the bathtub without slipping and falling on her face. Right now, Shizuka is still so small that it's effortless to pick her up and carry her around. Years will fly by, and soon, she'll grow up and go her own way. Sakura can't even imagine that happening—that her baby girl will ever grow up and leave her behind.
Everything changes, and everything ends. Everyone is a living example of that.
But in this moment, right here, right now—things are suspended, an ephemeral moment prolonged, and she closes her eyes and breathes it in.
the hands that protect
Shizuka is branded with the branch family's seal on her fourth birthday.
She cries the entire time, and Sakura stands to the side, biting her bottom lip until her teeth pierce skin and she draws blood. Her hand clasps Neji's tightly. She wants to turn away and block out the sound, but she knows she shouldn't—she can't turn away from her own daughter's pain, even if it's inevitable regardless.
"Will it hurt, Neji?"
"The jutsu is forcibly making connections with neurons in the brain, so yes."
Her husband stands stiff as a board beside her, but he's trembling, imperceptibly. Sakura doesn't know with what.
The entire process doesn't last any longer than a few minutes, but it feels like an eternity to Sakura. When the elders finally step away from Shizuka, Sakura rushes over to her and gathers her in a tight hug, hushing her cries. "It's okay. It's over now. It won't hurt anymore." But that, of course, is a lie. It can start hurting again at any time. Shizuka could die at any time.
She can see now why Neji hated this seal so much when he was younger.
Kneeling down and wiping Shizuka's tears from her damp cheeks, she asks, "Is there anything you want? Ice cream, maybe? Today's a special day, so you can have anything. You can have everything."
"I-I want…to buy a new headband…" Shizuka has a thing for pretty headbands—she already owns more than five. Right now, she's adorning a white one with a floppy bow, as white as her eyes.
Sakura kisses her newly branded forehead. "Of course. Let me grab my wallet and we can go, okay?" She rushes out of the room to do as such.
In the hallway, she has to stop for a moment to cry, holding her sides as if she's desperately trying to keep herself from falling to pieces. She only gives herself one minute though, before she wipes her eyes dry. It's alright for her to cry, but it's not alright if crying is all she does. She's not the only one who depends on herself anymore, after all.
When she returns with her belongings in hand, she hears Neji talking to Shizuka, stern as always, but equally warm.
"You have one too, Daddy? Why doesn't Mommy have one?"
"Because Mommy wasn't born into the Hyuuga clan. But you are. You're part of your branch family—this seal is proof of that."
"Why do we need the seal?"
"Because…" Sakura waits, wondering what Neji will decide to say. "Because we were born to protect the main family. The main family is strong, Shizuka, but we are stronger. Do you know what this is?"
"That's my heart."
"That's right. Your heart is very important; without it, you would die. But sometimes, it's vulnerable."
"What does vulnerable mean?"
"It means it gets hurts easily. Now, what are these?"
"That's right. Your hands can do lots of things, can't they? They can also protect. Your hands protect your heart from getting hurt, the way we, the branch family, protects the main family from getting hurt. The two families are different, but they need each other. No one can ever do anything alone."
Sakura takes a deep, shaky breath, trying to blink away her tears at bay. That's right: the branch family is there to protect, not to do the dirty work. She never wants Shizuka to grow up with the same ideas that Neji did.
"But I can't do anything, Daddy—I can't protect anyone."
"You will one day. Do you know why? Because you're strong. You're my daughter—of course you're strong. One day, you'll be as strong as Mommy."
"If you try your best, then yes, of course. You might even be stronger." Then, Neji's voice drops to a whisper. "But don't tell Mommy I said that." Sakura hears Shizuka giggle.
Neji makes the best father, because he's experienced pain—he knows exactly what he never wants his daughter to feel. Sakura gazes at the ring on her finger for a moment before clearing her throat and entering the room. Neji has Shizuka sitting on his shoulders, and she's tugging at the light switch hanging from the ceiling.
"Ready to go? Let's buy five—no, ten new headbands!"
Shizuka laughs, and claps in delight. The seal is vivid on her forehead but she looks no different to Sakura—she's just as radiant, just as beautiful. "Yeah!"
i'm a book half unread
A few more cuts and bruises, a few hits here and there, a few more obstacles thrown her way, and Sakura is somehow pregnant with a second.
"You and Neji need to calm down," Naruto says with distaste. "Hinata-chan hasn't even popped out her first yet."
"That's gross, Naruto, don't say it like that."
"And anyway, if all of you guys are pregnant at the same time, the village's military force is going to go way down!"
"I don't plan my pregnancies according to Konoha's economic and military status, okay?" She punches Naruto's arm, hard enough to bruise. "And anyway, this one's totally unexpected. I'm still allowing ovulation, but Neji and I have been so busy lately that we haven't even been having much sex, so…"
"Gross, Sakura-chan! I don't want to hear about that!"
Hinata, who is seven months pregnant, waddles into the living room. "What are you guys talking about?"
"Sakura-chan's pregnant! Again!"
"Again?" A smile blooms on Hinata's face. "Congratulations!"
Sakura waves it off, resting her chin on the heel of her hand. "Thanks, but I can't exactly say I'm looking forward to nine months of that again."
"What's being pregnant like?" Naruto asks. "Do you think it's anything like having a bijuu sealed inside of you?"
"No, I don't think so…"
"I always imagined it's more painful, considering you have to push the thing out."
Sakura truly isn't sure if being pregnant sucks more than having a bijuu sealed inside of her, but then again, maybe those two things can't really be compared. She sighs. Only in the recent year or two did she finally get regular missions again—she'll be on leave again.
But Neji will be happy, she's sure. He's on a mission right now and won't be back for another few days, but that doesn't mean she can't break the news to Shizuka.
(And when she does, Shizuka's response is uncannily identical to her father's: she hugs Sakura around her legs and presses her ear tight to her belly, asking if she'll be getting a little brother or sister.
"It's too early to tell yet. Do you want a brother or sister?"
And Shizuka looks up at her and grins, the seal bare and exposed on her forehead but snowy eyes full of excitement. And at five years old, Sakura wouldn't want her to be anything else. "Both! I want a big family with you and Daddy!"
Sakura laughs. "Maybe one sibling for you is enough. Mommy is getting too old for this." Which is slightly a lie, but Shizuka won't know for several years to come that women can still reproduce past the age of twenty-nine. Ugh. She's actually twenty-nine now. It's disgusting to even think about.
Her daughter pouts. "But I want lots of brothers and sisters."
Kneeling down, Sakura tells her, "Tell Naruto-oji that, maybe he'll convince Hinata-oba to give you a few more."
And without a second thought, Shizuka spins and races out of the room. Sakura sighs in relief. Well, that's one disaster avoided.)
scattered in the wind
Shizuka likes to stare at Sakura's old Team 7 picture sometimes. She can easily recognize Sakura, Naruto, and Kakashi, but naturally, hasn't the faintest idea who Sasuke is.
But of course, now she does, when all Naruto ever talks about regarding their "good old days" is Sasuke half the time. She fondly calls him Sasuke-oji and even faces skywards to talk to him sometimes. Sakura hides her smile, knowing that in a perfect world and if Sasuke were alive, he probably wouldn't have entertained her much anyway.
She and Naruto get assigned one last mission to the Earth Country before she's put on maternity leave. They go out of their way to visit the place they found Sasuke dead, all those years ago. It feels like a lifetime ago. And in many ways, it really is.
"Funny, isn't it?" Naruto muses. "I hated Sasuke and you hated me and Sasuke hated both of us and somehow, the three of us became closer than we ever imagined."
"I hope he was happy, at least. It seems unfair that we're living our lives the way we are if he didn't die happy."
"Tch, you know him. Couldn't be happy even if he tried."
The Earth Country is cold. Sakura reaches out, and holds Naruto's hand.
i'm never going to leave this bed
"This—this isn't my fault, is it…?" Her eyes are wide. Her hands are trembling. "Did I do something wrong…?" She holds her small bulge, already a few months in and expectedly, as precious as her first child.
Tsunade shakes her head, sad. "You did nothing wrong. You're impeccable, Sakura, and you know that."
Neji's arm is around her shoulders for comfort, but she hardly feels it. "Hokage-sama, if you could please elaborate…?"
"It was just an unlucky mix of genes. Neither of you are at fault. Your child—your son has a severely underdeveloped respiratory system. I can help speed up its growth process, but I would never be able to make it catch up to the rest of the body."
"How will this affect his life?" Sakura asks, anxious and afraid.
"With the right medication, he can live a relatively full life. But he will be physically weak, and…he definitely would not be able to be a shinobi." Silence falls in the examination room. Tsunade clears her throat. "I'll let you two discuss this."
Even after the Hokage has left the room, Sakura doesn't move an inch. "What are we supposed to do, Neji?" Hizashi was supposed to be strong, just like Shizuka. He was supposed to be healthy just like the rest of them—never in a million years did Sakura even consider that something like this would happen to them. Haven't they had enough tragedy for ten lifetimes and then some?
Neji presses a kiss to her temple. "We…do everything we can. Hizashi is no less deserving of our love than Shizuka, or any could-have-been child of ours, whether they're healthier or not." But even as he says this, his voice thick with uncertainty.
"He won't be able to be a shinobi."
"There are other occupations, aren't there? And anyway, Sakura, you of all people should know—only a weak person will ever see the true value in strength. This isn't what I had wanted either, but Hizashi will be strong. If not in body, then in mind. I promise I will make that happen." His hand meets hers, and they rest together on her belly. "It's lucky that he's being born into the branch family. If he had the misfortune of being in the main family, he'd be looked down on. At least now, it won't be as bad."
Maybe this is all part of the fate that Neji used to always go on about. Not to bring them down, but to remind them that there will be hardships. Sakura has spent the last few years unbelievably happy, finding the proper balance between her family, friends, and career. She had felt successful. Powerful. Capable.
Maybe that was all in preparation for this. For Hizashi.
"Don't apologize." He tilts her chin and kisses her briefly. Neji, who is so used to holding in his emotions, manages keep it together even though his eyes say otherwise. He's just as scared as she is.
There's no doubt that Hizashi, who is still growing inside of her, will be just as loved as Shizuka—but now Sakura is afraid, because what if she isn't the parent that he deserves? What if she does something wrong? What if something happens to him when she's out on a mission—
A knock sounds at the door, and Tsunade returns. "Have you made your decision?"
Neji stands up and pulls Sakura with her. "There was never any decision to make," he says. "Of course we're keeping him."
The Hokage smiles. "Then I'll do my best to make Hizashi as healthy as possible."
Sakura spends every day after that scanning her own belly, making sure Hizashi is alright. Without medical jutsu, he wouldn't survive even one hour outside the womb—she can clearly see that. But once treatment with Tsunade begins, his respiratory system grows rapidly, even though never to the size and strength that it should be. To Sakura, his lungs look tiny and frail, like a butterfly who can't find the strength to leave the ground.
Neji requests for less missions too. It's strange to anyone who doesn't know the situation, but he takes up training a genin team (he had called it babysitting) so he can be home for most evenings.
"You don't have to," she says.
"I want to," he replies.
Shizuka is absolutely thrilled about having her parents at home more. She's six now and will be entering the academy next year, without a single doubt in her mind that she wants to be a shinobi like Mommy and Daddy.
Sakura watches Neji teach her how to properly throw shuriken and kunai while reading various scrolls out loud to Hizashi. On the days of their pre-academy lessons, their garden is always littered with stray weapons afterwards, and a target that hasn't been hit once.
"It will improve exponentially once she activates her Byakugan," Neji reassures. "It should be soon."
And at night, when everyone else is asleep, they move slowly underneath the covers, kisses like a slow burning fire and movements languid and familiar.
She had told him once, when she was pregnant with Shizuka, that she wasn't sexy when there was a balloon inflating inside her belly. He had disagreed rather vehemently (as vehemently as Hyuuga Neji can, anyway), and showed her how wrong she was—and made sure to show her for days to come.
And even though this has happened so many times before—not just the sex, but everything—it always somehow manages to be as good as the first time. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it's Neji. Because she loves Neji, and nothing could ever grow old and frayed with him, nothing dull, nothing overused. He is older than he used to be, a few more scars here and there, a few more wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, but he never stops being beautiful. Sakura wonders if he ever will.
So somehow, with the knowledge of all of that, she manages to find the strength to continue carrying Hizashi with a bright smile, even when everyone else shows concern. Because she is Sakura. She is durable.
And she will survive this.
Hiashi is far from pleased to have the compound so lively and…wild, as he put it, but no one even pays him any heed.
Christmas parties throughout the years have varied, depending on who was in the village at the time, but this year is the biggest it's been in years. They've outgrown using the academy a few years back (they scare off the students there, apparently), so since then, they've relocated to the Hyuuga compound, since it's where Tsunade's apprentice, the Hyuuga heiress, Hyuuga prodigy, and the future Hokage (now confirmed) live.
This year, of course, is a little different, now with Shizuka and Mamoru (Naruto and Hinata's son) running about the place. Their conversations now are about their missions, weddings, how to properly feed babies—it's all become interestingly adult, and sometimes Sakura wonders when it even happened. When did they leave behind rivalries and love interests and who has the creepier jutsu? (But actually, the latter topic is still visited sometimes, so she supposes she can't count that.)
"Don't." Sakura holds up her hand to stop Neji from coming any closer with a plate of food in hand. "The smell of that makes me nauseous."
Cautiously, Neji places the food on a table far away before returning. "Is there anything you want to eat?" He's much better at handling her now that it's the second time around. He's also surprisingly patient and tolerant of her mood swings and strange food cravings.
She shakes her head. "No, not right now. Go enjoy the party; you never get to relax these days."
"I'd rather stay here." Neji settles down beside Sakura on the couch.
"You're not the one who can't even see your own swollen feet. I don't think you have the right to sit here."
"Is that really what you want to say to someone who just wants to keep you company?"
The atmosphere tonight is bright. Sakura hears Ino and Naruto screaming at each other in the distance—something about the punch and children are actually drinking it, idiot! Sakura frowns in worry.
"Keep Shizuka away from the punch bowl," she murmurs, but Neji is already swiftly on his feet again.
They needn't worry though, because in the next moment, Shizuka races into the room, clutching something in her hand. She purposely runs into Neji with much vigor, and he lets himself fall back into the couch with a bounce.
"What do you have there?"
Shizuka holds out a branch of mistletoe. "Sai-oji gave it to me!"
Neji frowns. "Did he do anything when he gave it to you?"
"He kissed me," she said, and points to her cheek. "Right here. He said that's what you do when you're underneath mistletoe!"
Neji scowls, but Sakura just laughs. "Make sure not to let him kiss you on your lips! That's an important place to be kissed."
"Like you and Daddy?"
Neji chokes. "Mommy and I don't kiss, Shizuka."
"Liar. You kiss all the time when you think I don't see." Sakura just laughs harder.
Shizuka holds the mistletoe up high, and clambers onto a baffled Neji's lap and plants a sloppy kiss on his cheek. "For you!" And then she leans over and does the same to Sakura. "And for you!"
She kisses Shizuka back. "Thanks!"
"Now you and Daddy!"
Neji, who (still) hates public displays of affection, looks about ready to bolt it from the room, but Sakura catches him with a peck before he can do so. "For you," she says with a smile.
He sighs. "Once Hizashi is born, I won't have to deal with you women all the time anymore. Insufferable beings."
Shizuka asks what insufferable means, but it's a struggle for her to even pronounce the word, so her question isn't finished. Which is for the better, because Sakura doesn't want her having a vocabulary like that as such a young age. She gives Neji a warning look, but he just glances away, acting as though he did nothing wrong. Who's the insufferable one now?
Mamoru wanders into the room and Shizuka goes to join him in whatever he's doing, and Sakura sighs, leaning back into the couch. She's exhausted and she's done a grand total of nothing tonight.
A hand rests on top of her belly, and she glances at Neji. "What's it like?"
Who is he, Naruto? "I can't really explain. But…it's warm. And precious. And fragile. And if I could, I'd keep him in there forever so nothing could ever hurt him."
"That'd be problematic for your health, and his."
"His health is problematic either way."
"Nothing good is going to come out of being upset about it."
"Funny that you would say that," she remarks, but already, a smile is creeping to her lips. "Considering being upset used to be your talent."
"That was a long time ago," Neji sniffs.
"We're all grown up now, huh."
"You used to have long hair."
"I think the issue here is that you still have long hair."
At this, Neji looks genuinely offended. Sakura sighs and gets to her feet—that's enough sitting for today. Eight months pregnant or not, she needs to walk around a little.
"You could only wish for hair like mine—Sakura, are you listening to me?"
"Nope," she singsongs, and waddles out of the room.
They sit outside in the garden, the six of them—Sakura, Neji, Shizuka, Naruto, Hinata, Mamoru—with blankets wrapped around them to keep warm in the chilly midnight air, waiting for the fireworks to go off when it strikes midnight.
"When I'm Hokage," Naruto boasts, "I'm going to expand budgets to make these celebrations bigger!"
"You're going to overwork us, you moron," Neji says. "Nothing comes without a price."
"Just for that, I'm going to make sure you only get forty percent of your pay!"
"Are you threatening me?"
"I'm the future Hokage! Are you threatening me?"
Sakura is in the middle of sighing at the two men who never get tired of belittling each other, when she jumps. Hizashi kicked again.
He's only been moving around a lot in the recent weeks—otherwise, he's been fairly peaceful. Sakura doesn't really mind, but he's really at it at night when she's trying to sleep—she hopes it's not an indication of how his sleeping schedule will be once he's born.
The first crack of the fireworks interrupt Neji and Naruto, and all of them turn skywards to stare at the colors bursting above them. Shizuka and Mamoru clap their hands over their ears but their eyes never stray, enchanted by the fireworks. Neji's arm reaches around Sakura's shoulders, and she leans against him.
She thought she knew what family was when she was twelve and surrounded by Team 7. That family is nothing compared to this. Relationships, after all, have to go both ways.
"Happy New Year!" Mamoru screams, his dark hair looking stunningly violet under the fireworks.
This year doesn't feel like it'll be particularly different from all the previous ones, but maybe that's the beauty of it.
"Neji." Sakura flinches awake in the middle of the night, woken by a sharp pain in her lower belly. "Neji."
Her husband rolls beside her, indicating that he's awake and listening.
"Something's not right. Something—" She flinches again when the pain returns, stronger this time. "Something's wrong with Hizashi." In the darkness of their room, her hands glow as she scans herself.
"Are you alright? Should we go to the hos—"
"Yes. Hospital. Now." She's shaking as she forces herself to her feet. "He's coming. Right now."
"What—? But it's weeks too early—"
"Yeah, well, he doesn't seem to care, does he!" The pain grows sharper with every wave, but she still struggles to tie her hair up in a messy ponytail. "Someone needs to get Tsunade-sama and someone needs to help me to the hospital."
Neji, ten times more disheveled than she is and unaccustomed to medical emergencies, disappears from the room without even bothering to make himself presentable to get a helping hand. Sakura takes deep breaths and tries to calm herself down.
Hizashi is coming a month early. His respiratory system is nowhere near ready—and to top it all off, his head isn't in the right position to have a natural birth. She and Neji had discussed with Tsunade from the start that he would come out in surgery, but—this is far too soon. If he's born now, he'll be in critical condition. He might not survive.
She has to stay calm. If she doesn't, it'll only make things worse.
Neji is back a moment later. "Naruto has gone to get Hokage-sama," he informs her, breathless. "Let's go."
"You don't want to at least put on your hitai-ate first?"
"This is an emergency!"
Sakura grabs it anyway, because he knows he'll regret it later. It's the only thing she clutches to until the metal digs into her skin, enough to momentarily distract her from the painful throbs in her belly.
Tsunade is already at the hospital with Naruto when they arrive. "Contractions once every ten minutes," Sakura informs her, as if she's the doctor and not the patient. "I can't keep him in—you have to save him once he's out, you have to—"
Her mentor grabs her firmly by the shoulders to hold her still. "I'll do everything I can, Sakura. But right now, you have to stay calm."
"I'm calm." She takes another deep breath, and nods. "I'm calm."
There are a mix of emotions in Tsunade's eyes, but the only one Sakura sees is pride. Past her innate fear, she smiles. She's glad that, even at a time like this, she is someone that Tsunade can be proud of.
She tosses the hitai-ate in her hand to Neji, who almost doesn't catch it. "It's now or never."
He nods and presses a kiss to her temple. "Now or never."
and it never ends
In the months that Sakura carried Hizashi, she had hoped that he would grow up to know that he is loved despite his shortcomings. To be physically weak in an entire family of shinobi is often a disgrace, and in one as noble as the Hyuuga clan—Sakura can't imagine the things some of the more traditional, close-minded elders would say about him.
She had hoped that he would know that he could be, and would be strong. Because Neji is strong, despite being tied to the branch family. Sakura is strong, even though she was born a civilian and without any shinobi blood in her veins. Hizashi will be no exception.
These are the things that she tells him in the long days that he spends in the incubator, small and frail and so very breakable. She can't even hold him—she can only reach her hand in to let her finger touch his palm, to hope he will grasp back.
And he does, most of the time. The first time his tiny fingers wrap around Shizuka's thumb, she's fascinated—and tells Sakura and Neji that she can't wait until he grows strong enough for her to hold. She already knows that he is weaker than the other kids but it doesn't seem to deter her, and that's what Sakura loves. Shizuka is growing up and being influenced by her peers, but is still so unbiased.
Neji spends every spare moment by Hizashi's side, to the point where Sakura has to force him out of the hospital to go home together. He doesn't want to—"What if something happens to him? What if he dies and I'm not there?"
And Sakura can't deny that she has that fear too, but she reassures both Neji and herself at the same time: "Tsunade-sama and Shizune are taking rotational shifts to watch over him, and you know they're the best in the village."
"You're the best in the village."
She smiles and kisses him briefly, and he allows it because it's dark out and there's no one else around. "Now you're just being biased."
"I just—" He sighs, and runs a hand through his hair. "I didn't think things would turn out this way."
"No one ever plans these things. Hey." They stop in the middle of the road and she steps to face him. "Everything's going to be okay. We have each other, right?" She holds his face in between her hands. Neji looks tired, worn, weary. Like he's lived a thousand lives and then some. "We may not have thought things would turn out this way, but when I took my vows on our wedding day—when I promised the rest of my life to you, I meant it. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Remember? I'm all in."
"We're all in," Neji repeats, as if affirming it. "Until death do us part."
She presses their foreheads together, the cold metal of his hitai-ate against her skin. "Until death do us part."
A part of Sakura wishes she were young again, so she wouldn't have to worry about the things she worries about now. She almost wishes she were still struggling with finding herself and dealing with her feelings for Sasuke instead of this—because this, here, isn't just herself anymore. It's her family. It's her children. It's not just her life at stake—it's theirs. And if they die, it's on her.
She shakes her head. "I don't know what I'll do if he dies. So he better not die, because if he does, I'll be really pissed at him. Not exactly what a child wants to do to his mother."
Through it all, Neji manages a quiet laugh. "Yes, that is true."
She tilts her head and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "We should get some rest."
"But what if—"
"I don't know, Neji. But we can't do anything the way we are now, anyway."
He doesn't look assured by her answer, but at least he doesn't protest. And they lift their feet and they walk, step by step.
All the way home.
(and you think it will)
For the first time in a long time, she trains.
The sheer earthquakes she causes with her bare fists make people come running, because some have forgotten what it's like to have Haruno Sakura train within the village. And she's forgotten it too—to be in control, to have everything bend to her will. That tree will fall if she wants it to. That boulder will crumble if she so wishes.
Naruto joins her partway through and she almost feels young again. Of course, they completely destroy the place; Tsunade herself stomps to the scene and tells them that they have restrictions when training.
"But Baa-chan, it's not training if we have to hold back!"
"Shut up before I forget to hold back and accidentally kill you."
"You can't kill the future Hokage!"
"I'm the current Hokage, I can do whatever I damn well please!"
Sakura sighs and turns away from the two, and spots Neji and Shizuka a little ways away, where the training grounds still remains untouched and intact.
"How long have you guys been here for?" she asks, jogging up to them.
"Long enough to see you smash Naruto-oji's head into the ground, right, Shizuka?"
She flinches. "Remember, Shizuka, you can only do that to your enemies. Don't smash your friends' heads into the ground."
"Naruto-oji isn't your friend?"
"Well…he's an exception, I guess."
"Shizuka wanted to show you something." Neji picks up their daughter, even though she's seven and has long since known how to walk on her own. "Right, Shizuka?"
Sakura raises her eyebrows and crosses her arms. "Oh, really? What could that be?"
Their daughter concentrates for a moment, and Sakura feels her chakra flare, and then—
"Shizuka…" Sakura's smile grows so big it could split her face in two. She takes her from Neji's arms and spins her around. "You activated your Byakugan! When was this?"
"This morning!" Shizuka answers happily. "I hit all the targets!"
"Good for you!"
"We were also about to go visit Hizashi," Neji fills in. "Do you want to come too?"
"That's a stupid question." Sakura glances back over her shoulder just in time to see Tsunade punch Naruto. "Looks like he's a bit preoccupied now, after all."
"Wait!" Shizuka holds up a hand in Sakura's face.
She sets her daughter down. "What is it?"
"I want to see Mommy fight Daddy!"
Sakura and Neji glance at each other. Patting Shizuka's head, Neji says, "I'm not sure that's such a good idea."
Neji and Sakura have sparred several times before, but the only time they've ever gone all out against each other was during the jounin exam. And even then, they had fought for so long that the match was a tie, and the entire arena was more or less destroyed. The result had everyone surprised—even Sakura.
"I want to see Mommy smash Daddy's head into the ground!"
Neji sputters. "Mommy would not smash my head into the ground. Mommy would not be able to."
"Excuse me? Don't you remember the time I broke your hip and even after I healed it, you were limping for two weeks?"
"I don't recall something like that ever happening."
"You have a painfully selective memory," Sakura says, cracking her knuckles. "Shall I remind you?"
Neji's gaze is set on her, a smirk on his lips and eyes burning. "Shizuka," he says without looking away, "stay by that tree over there. I'm about to prove Mommy wrong."
Excitement sparks in Sakura's veins. "Just because I've been out of commission for the past few months, don't think my skills have rusted." She pulls her gloves on tighter and leaps back with a burst of chakra. It's been a long time since she's fought Neji.
"Sakura-chan? What are you—" Naruto doesn't get to finish his sentence before he has to leap out of the way to avoid a shower of shuriken.
"My husband," she informs him, "seems to have forgotten the several times I've kicked his ass."
"Well, he is in ANBU, he kind of has that right—"
Sakura doesn't hear the rest of his sentence because she's engaged in combat with Neji in the next moment. It's always a struggle to fight him because he has strong short range attacks and long range defense—and for Sakura, whose fighting technique relies strongly on her chakra control and taijutsu, he doesn't exactly make the best match for her.
But that's never deterred her, so of course, it doesn't deter her now. The advantage of being married to Neji includes knowing his fighting pattern. She's still able to hold her own despite her obvious disadvantages, and even pushes back, causing his brow to furrow in concentration.
Neji's fingers, coated with precise chakra, aim for the tenketsu in her arms. She feels a few of them closing with sharp pains, but he doesn't hit all of them. She swoops low and swings her leg to trip him—and when he jumps to avoid that attack, she shoots up again to grab his ankle, and they go tumbling in the grass.
"Don't speak so highly of yourself," she growls in victory when she straddles him, pushing (but not smashing because she is kind) his head against the ground. "What did you say about—"
In the next moment, she's forced to leap away unless she wants to take a punch to her jaw. "Don't be impatient." He smirks. "This isn't over yet."
But when it is over, which is ten minutes and one genjutsu later, much to Sakura's dismay, she finds herself pressed up against a splintered tree with a kunai against her throat. Fuck. Maybe her skills have rusted in the past months.
They're nose to nose, so she hears his triumph more than she sees it. "You still haven't kicked my ass, Sakura."
She swallows, and his blade slices her skin. "Okay. You win this time." When he withdraws his weapon, she reaches out and pulls him in, their mouths meeting in a fierce kiss. Neji struggles for a moment (still a pansy about public displays of affection) before kissing her back—and then he chokes, because she punches him right in the gut, with a slight touch of chakra.
"Unfair," he croaks, sinking to his knees. "Dishonorable."
"There are no rules in real life combat," she singsongs, before patting his head and skipping off to return to Shizuka. Her daughter, not knowing the dirty trick she just used, congratulates her wholeheartedly on beating up Daddy real good. She then hands Sakura a crown made of flowers.
"Congratulations for winning!" And she places it on Sakura's head.
"Daddy's going to be sad that he won't be getting one."
"I know. So I made a second place prize." Shizuka produces a second crown, but very clearly more sloppily weaved together, and part of it actually composed of weeds. Sakura stifles a laugh. "I ran out of flowers."
When Neji finally rejoins them, looking very disgruntled, Sakura lifts Shizuka so she can crown Neji as well. "It matches the leaves and sticks in your hair," Sakura tells him honestly. "You look good."
Neji glares. Sakura decides to be helpful and plucks one of the several twigs that are poking out awkwardly. He put up a valiant fight, but then again, men will always be men. Terribly simple-minded creatures. Even Neji can't fight that, past his genius and talent.
"So." She claps her hands together, facing a giggly Shizuka and sulking Neji. "Let's go visit Hizashi."
"Women," she hears Neji mutter under his breath as he stalks off ahead of them.
but it never does, not quite
Sakura remembers several years ago when Naruto made a passing remark about babies and Neji choked on his food and she screamed.
And that night was the very first night Neji stayed over at her home, when her parents were in the Tea Country, and they bumped painfully into her drawer and she was pressed against the cold wall and everything was Neji, he was all he saw and all she felt and all she tasted and it was the best, the very best thing that could happen to her in her entire life.
"I was terrified," Neji recalls with a quiet laugh. "That I would do something wrong. It was my first…"
"Me too. You're the only person I've ever…but you weren't bad, for a first."
"Wasn't bad? What's that supposed to mean?" He rolls over in their futon to face her, the faint moonlight from the window illuminating his face, casting a quiet glow in his eyes.
She shrugs. "Well, it hurt, obviously. And you were inexperienced, so."
"You never told me this," he sputters.
"At the time, it was less about your technique and more about other things, you know! I was just happy that I could be with you, or that you wanted me at all."
"Of course I wanted you. You were…" And it's here that he looks away. "You were the only one I've ever wanted. All my life."
Sakura remembers days when Neji loved her more than she loved him, and days when he gave all of himself to her, never expecting anything in return. She remembers a weak boy who didn't know how to handle his own feelings and she wonders how on earth she could have ever thought Sasuke meant more than him. Neji is cold and callous and he fences himself away, but…
"You're the most beautiful person I've ever met," she tells him honestly, so honest that she has to blink away tears because it's true, it's absolutely true and she hates that it took her so long to realize it.
"Thank you?" he replies, unsure. "Are you alright? My beauty isn't something to cry over, you are by far more beautiful than I am—"
She shakes her head. "It's not that. It's just that…you're perfect. And I'm so lucky to have you."
Neji gazes at her for a moment before he reaches out and brushes her hair away. "What brought this about?" he asks softly.
"I don't know. I just…love you. I love you a lot."
"As you should. My life would be a miserable one indeed if you didn't." He brings her close and they kiss, sweet and gentle at first, but then his hand skims down her side and their hips press together just the right way and nope, it's not so sweet and gentle anymore. Sakura is tired, with everything that's happening, and especially because she spends every moment of the day worrying about Hizashi, but with Neji, all of that manages to slip away, even if it's only for a short while. Neji gives her the sanctuary that she's always in desperate need of.
"'As I should'?" She mutters against his skin. "Don't get cocky just because I've been married to you for a few years."
"It's almost been ten."
"A decade or two doesn't prove anything."
"Really?" They roll until she's straddling him, his hair splayed on the pillows like he's some sort of angel. (And maybe he is one, straight from heaven itself.) "I beg to differ." But she rolls her hips against his and he tilts his head back and groans quietly, and there are no more words after that.
Being cocky or not, it's just normal for Neji, and Sakura doesn't take any of it to heart—not when during moments like these. In the beginning, he was always trying to please her—asking so many questions about what she liked and what felt good that she just about lost interest in it altogether, but now, after so many years of knowing each other, it's stopped being about that. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being about loving someone, and became loving with someone.
Their mouths meet in a kiss, and she's washed away.
here's your finale
It's merely a coincidence that Hizashi is discharged from the hospital on Shizuka's birthday, but it's the best gift anyone could ever receive.
"Just wait until Daddy gets home; he's going to be so mad that he's on a mission on the first day Hizashi gets to spend home." Sakura giggles with Shizuka, cradling Hizashi in her arms. Shizuka is eight years old today; there is a large age gap between her and Hizashi, but Sakura doesn't doubt for a moment that she's going to be a fantastic sister. "Do you want to hold him?"
Shizuka nods excitedly, and Sakura carefully places Hizashi in her arms, telling her to support his head. His head that is, much to Sakura's resentment, covered with dark hair. No pink, again.
"He's so heavy," Shizuka breathes in wonder.
"He did grow up a lot while he was staying here at the hospital."
Hizashi opens his tiny mouth and lets out a raspy cough. It's something that, Sakura guesses, she will get used to hearing all the time.
"When will Daddy be home again?"
"In a few days! Let's have lots of fun with Hizashi before then, okay?"
A week ago, Neji was dispatched on his first mission since Hizashi was first diagnosed. An A-rank mission right off the bat, which he probably personally requested. Sakura can't wait until she can work full time again either. Her blood is just itching for some action.
The door bursts open, and she lifts her head to see Naruto, dirty and battered. He's panting.
"Naruto? Weren't you on that mission with Neji? Did you guys finish up early?"
When he doesn't answer, it's when Sakura realizes that there's something terribly wrong.
"What, Naruto?" she demands. "What is it?"
His expression is so ridden with guilt that it looks like he'll fall apart underneath the weight of it. His blue eyes watery and jaw set, he crosses the room in a few large strides and pulls Sakura into a hug so tight that she finds it difficult to breathe.
"It was my fault, Sakura-chan. I'm so sorry."
"What are you talking about?" She hugs him back, uncertainly, and glances at Shizuka who's still holding Hizashi and staring at them in confusion. "Let's talk outside. Shizuka, sing some lullabies to Hizashi, okay? It's his nap time."
When they're in the hallway with the door closed so Shizuka can't hear their topic of conversation, Naruto says with eyes cast down at his feet, "I don't even…I don't know what to say…I'll never be able to repay you…"
"Naruto? Hey." She takes his face in her hands and forces him to look at him—and her eyes widen when she realizes that there are tears streaming down his cheeks. "What's wrong? Tell me. We'll figure something out."
He shakes his head and hugs her again, his wet face buried into her neck. "Neji…"
Her blood runs cold. "What about Neji?"
"Baa-chan told me to get you…to see him…"
"Okay. Where is he?"
Sakura wrenches herself from Naruto's hold to get a clear look at his face. "Why the morgue? Who died?" He doesn't answer. He can't even look her in the eye. "Naruto, who died?"
Silence follows, and she turns on her heels and races off, faster than she's ever run in her life.
She tries her best not to let her imagination run off on wild tangents on her way down to the morgue, but it's difficult. Especially with the look on Naruto's face—there's no way, right? That's not possible. There's no way that Neji—that the Hyuuga Neji would die in battle—
The door to the morgue is already open and when she steps in, the temperature drops several degrees. Only Tsunade is in the room.
"Where's Neji?" Her eyes are wide. Her voice is shaking. "Naruto said he was here—"
Then she notices the table Tsunade is standing behind. There's a—
There's a body bag lying on it.
The body bag is not empty.
Sakura is frozen to the spot. She can't move. She's afraid to step closer to see who is inside that body bag, even though she already knows.
Tsunade's eyes are solemn. "I'm sorry, Sakura."
Very slowly, she forces her feet to move.
And there, on that table, is the very face that she did not want to see.
"He's not even wounded," she whispers.
"I cleaned him up before Naruto went to get you. He already had several injuries and depleted chakra, but it was poison that finished him."
"Poison…?" Sakura looks up at the Hokage, her mentor, her second mother. "What, there wasn't a medic on the team?"
"We've always been short on medics; you know that. This mission wasn't classified dangerous enough for a medic—"
"It was fucking A-rank!" Tsunade is unfazed by Sakura's outburst. "I should've been there. I'm the one of the only medics skilled enough to even be on an A-rank mission or higher. You should've assigned me—"
"And what if you didn't make it?" the Hokage barks, stopping Sakura in her tracks. "What if you both died? What would happen to Shizuka and Hizashi?"
"That wouldn't have happened because I'm a medic!"
"Sakura!" Tsunade's eyes are hard, never for a moment forgoing her role in Sakura's life. "I know this is hard. And I know you're blaming this on yourself right now. There is—there is nothing harder, thinking of all the what-ifs. You can be sad now, but…Neji wouldn't have wanted you to be sad forever."
"Fuck off," Sakura hisses. "You lost Dan years ago. The pain has dulled and you don't remember anymore."
The way Tsunade tenses up alerts Sakura that she's crossed the line, but she doesn't care—not right now. Stiffly, Tsunade leaves the room, her heels clacking loudly on the tile floor.
Sakura is left in silence, and with Neji. A deafening silence that rings endlessly in her ears until she goes dizzy, and has to grip the cold table to keep steady.
Neji lays in the body bag, his arms folded peacefully on his stomach. He's deathly pale, so much paler than he usually is—and when she touches his face, he's cold as ice.
His forehead is bare, no sign of his seal.
"It disappears after death, because only then is it no longer necessary."
Sakura can't breathe.
Just a week ago, she was teasing him because of his obvious excitement over finally getting a mission again. Just a week ago, he picked Shizuka up in his arms and promised to be back soon, and kissed her on the nose. Just a week ago, he snuck a quick kiss with Sakura before leaving the compound with Naruto, clad in his jounin vest, his travel pack slung over his shoulder.
Just a week ago, things were finally looking up. Hizashi's health was improving. He was going to be discharged. Shizuka was enjoying her first days in the academy. How…how did this happen?
She presses her forehead against his chest, and cries.
echoes hardly do you justice, dear
There are things that Sakura remembers, just out of the blue, without any real reason—things that seemed inconsequential at the time, and she never thought twice of. Of course she didn't. Of course she wouldn't have, until now.
When she was seventeen, and Neji held her hand for the first time. It was at night, and he was walking her home; his hand was cold and clammy and kind of gross, and Sakura just let her hand hang limply so he could do all the actual holding.
A year later, and she was healing a wound low on his hip, low enough for her to have to pull down the waistband of his pants. He had flushed a deep red, sputtered, and determinedly looked anywhere but her while she worked. He never did know that he wasn't the only one flustered that day.
When she was twenty and the loneliest she's ever been in her life, during those years without him.
Their honeymoon, when they spent hours watching the waves crash on the frozen shore of the Frost Country—a sight that had Neji enthralled for the longest time.
Their first anniversary, when she returned late from a mission and he was waiting in the kitchen with a dinner long gone cold. (She had eaten it anyway because it was rare to see a homemade dinner by him. Given, it didn't taste the best, but…)
Naruto and Hinata's wedding, which was the first time she'd ever seen him drunk. (He's incredibly lightweight so she understands why he wouldn't—he's a ridiculous drunk, babbling and terribly sappy, and she wonders if that's who he really is even when sober but with the walls around him knocked down.)
Shizuka saying she wanted to grow her hair out just like Daddy's, long and beautiful, especially when he leapt and spun and fought in battle.
Sakura can barely look at Shizuka now, because every time she does, she sees Neji.
And it hurts. Everything hurts. Every day, all the time. She can't remember what it felt like to have Sasuke turn away and leave them behind, but it couldn't have been worse than this—nothing could be worse than this.
She spent years pining after Sasuke. But she spent a lifetime living with Neji.
(But just not enough of a lifetime.)
Sakura never thought that she'd run out of time.
"Mommy?" Shizuka tugs at her wrist as they lower Neji into the ground that's not even warm enough for flowers to grow yet. "Is Daddy going to where Sasuke-oji is?"
i don't want to fall another moment into your gravity
Naruto explains in far more detail, but this is all Sakura gets out of it:
Him, being reckless, charges straight into battle with a hundred shadow clones at his heel. It's always been more or less an effective enough battle tactic so he didn't think twice about it this time around. Those that wield a sword, after all, must be prepared to be cut themselves.
The attack came from behind. And Naruto would have been the one who died if—if Neji, of course, did not stand in the way.
That idiot. Always saving others.
"He said it had nothing to do with me being in the main family or the next in line to be Hokage. It was just that he wanted to be able to choose his own moment of death—and that I…I was the first one to show him that he wouldn't always be tied down by fate."
Always putting everyone else before himself, or his family. Neji must have thought that she'd be fine on her own. Maybe she could have been, once upon a time—but not now. Not when she's been with him for so long that she recognizes his footsteps, the way he breathes, can predict his every thought.
"It's my fault, Sakura-chan. I'm sorry. I couldn't save Sasuke, and now Neji—"
"Shut up…" Guilt has plagued Naruto every single moment since he returned from the mission a week ago. If there's one person suffering as much as Sakura, it would be him.
"I really am worthless, aren't I? There's no way I can be Hokage…"
"If you're not strong enough to be Hokage, just get stronger. Train until there's no one left who can stand in your way." She looks at him with fierce eyes, wet with tears that she refuses to shed. "If you can't protect the village, then Neji's death will have been in vain." She's mad, she's so angry at Naruto—that he could ever let this happen, that he could ever let Neji die in his place. She's so infuriated she sees red—how dare he come back and apologize to her now? How dare he think he could ever make it up to her by even a fraction with those self-pitying words of his?
"I said shut up." She throws her fist, as hard as she can, and it meets Naruto's jaw without resistance. Bones break and shatter underneath her knuckles, and she feels minutely better.
Naruto clutches his jaw, and says nothing. And he waits for the next one to hit.
But it doesn't.
Sakura stands with her hand clutched tightly into a fist, her bottom lip trembling.
The way to ease this swallowing loneliness is not, of course, to push away the people who love her. She knows this. It's just…
Gently, she pries away Naruto's hand from his destroyed jaw, and begins the slow and intricate process of fixing it. He stares at her in awe and disbelief. "Don't get me wrong," she says. "I'm pissed. And I haven't forgiven you yet. But it's not like you wanted it, and…I don't think he would have wanted another way to go out. If he got to choose how to die, then I think that was more than enough for him. And to have died saving you, of all people…" She manages a weak smile. "Uzumaki Naruto, the light of our future."
He remains tense, meaning that he doesn't quite believe her words. Which he shouldn't—because she doesn't yet, either. But both of them know, time will pass and pain will numb and she will find it in herself to do so—because she is Haruno Sakura and she doesn't give up on the people she loves, much less hold grudges. But she's afraid that Naruto never will be able to forgive himself—because even now, even though he doesn't show it, she knows he's still guilty about not being able to bring Sasuke home safely. He's never let that go. And that's also part of the reason why she punched him; because holding back would only make it so much harder for him.
"I love Neji," she says, voice trembling. "But I love you too, Naruto. And it may be selfish of me, but I'm glad that it's you he saved, and not some faceless stranger."
"It should've been me. I should've died instead."
"But it wasn't, and there's nothing you can do about it. So stop moaning about it and be better than who you are right now. If you don't, I'll never forgive you."
His eyes go from conflicted to downcast, one notch further away from tearing himself apart. And Sakura finds it in herself to be glad.
This anger is only temporary. Anger at herself, everyone who's trying to support her, and the person whose life Neji saved—it will ebb away. Sakura has lived enough to know at least that. She knows how blessed she is; after all, she lost Neji once, and she survived.
And as much as she'd like to play the tragic heroine, she's not the tragic heroine. This is not the end.
But for now, she thinks, it's okay to feel like it is.
a sunrise you feel you don't deserve
Shizuka is quiet for several weeks, rarely talking, and spends her evenings training in their garden, performing flawlessly at her target practice. When she's first taught the transformation jutsu, the person that she always practices transforming into is Neji. When Sakura catches glimpses of her, her breath catches in her throat and her heart races at a hundred miles an hour—and then she remembers, that is not him. He is a little too thin, a little faded out—and it may be alright now, but she doesn't know what she'll do once Shizuka gets it perfectly.
She brushes Shizuka's dark hair at night with Neji's old brush, all of her headbands lined up neatly on her table, now rarely worn because she doesn't afford to be pretty. She has Neji's hair. She has Neji's eyes. Cold as ice, as individual as every single snowflake.
"I miss Daddy," Shizuka says, almost like a whine. Her bottom lip trembles and she begins crying, the same way she's been crying every night alone in her room, where she thinks Sakura can't see or hear.
"I miss him too," Sakura whispers, putting down the brush. "But he has Sasuke-oji to keep him company."
"I think Daddy h-hates Sasuke-oji. I bet Daddy hates being dead."
"Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's fighting with Sasuke-oji right now. Who do you think would win?"
Shizuka stifles her tears, and thinks. "Sasuke-oji would make a good opponent, but Daddy would win in the end. Because Daddy's the best."
Smiling, Sakura pats down her daughter's hair. "Yeah. I think so too. Come on, you need to go to bed."
Obediently (even more obediently than usual), Shizuka crawls into her futon. She stares at the ceiling and says, "Goodnight, Sasuke-oji. Goodnight, Daddy." Sakura swallows the lump in her throat and kisses Shizuka's forehead, her deep green seal and all.
"You have to say goodnight to Daddy too. He'll be mad if you don't."
"Right. Of course." She looks up at the ceiling as well. "Goodnight, Daddy."
After Shizuka is put to bed, Sakura pads quietly to the kitchen, where Hinata is cradling Hizashi, singing a soft lullaby. "He's having trouble sleeping," she tells Sakura. "He keeps on coughing himself awake."
"Here, let me try." Past her physical and emotional exhaustion, she takes Hizashi into her arms, her tiny son who still only knows how to flail his arms and legs and make strange gurgling sounds with his mouth. A touch of chakra glows at the tips of Sakura's fingers and she presses them to his chest, momentarily relieving his lungs. Hizashi gasps once and begins to breathe easier and more comfortably. "Better?" she murmurs down at him with a gentle smile.
His mouth opens and closes several times, and Sakura is about to ask Hinata to warm up a bottle of milk, when suddenly—for the very first time, Hizashi's eyes flutter open.
"Hinata…" Sakura's voice is trembling.
Hinata steps over, worried, and then: "Oh, Sakura."
She has to take several deep breaths to keep herself from crying all over her son.
Hizashi's eyes are a deep, breathtaking green.
i'm at home in the clouds
Time passes, as it tends to do. Seasons change and the months come and go, and life goes on. And even though she doesn't really want to, Sakura continues to live.
And even though it feels like she shouldn't, each day gets better. Breathing gets easier. It's less that Sakura stops missing Neji and more that she gets used to missing him and him not being around. It's more like he's gone on an extended mission—and she really believes that once it's her turn to go, she'll finally see him again. She believes that, because she doesn't know what to do if it's not true.
It's November, and winter is almost upon them. She sits in a teahouse with Naruto and Sai, discussing the different health benefits of bananas, when Sai points out that Shizuka and Hizashi have entered the premises in search of them.
Sakura turns to see her two children—Shizuka at twelve and Hizashi at five. They're holding hands as they weave through the tables and heading in their direction.
"Hey, guys! How was school?"
Shizuka, who usually responds with some sort of energy, is quiet today. Sakura raises her eyebrows in question towards Hizashi.
"She's sad today," Hizashi answers, as diligently as a five-year-old can. Sakura picks him up and sits him in her lap. "She won't talk to me." But even at five, Hizashi speaks intelligently and calmly. Being physically limited means nothing for his mental limitations, after all. The children's books he reads now are ones that Shizuka couldn't even fathom until she was eight. Hizashi is thoughtful and rarely loud, since it's often a struggle for him to shout. Which is a nice contrast, since there are occasions when Shizuka never holds back screaming loud enough for the entire compound to hear her.
Sakura pats Shizuka's head and runs her fingers through her hair to pull out some of the knots. "What's wrong? Did something happen at school today?"
"We were assigned genin teams today," Shizuka murmurs, not looking at Sakura. "I'm not in the same team as Hiroki-kun."
From what Sakura can gather, Hiroki is the boy Shizuka has liked for a while now, although she can't be certain, since girls her age never talk about those things to their parents. "Oh, Shizuka. I'm sorry." Her daughter's eyes are downcast, and she refuses to meet Sakura's gaze.
"I'm never going to see him if we're not on the same team!"
"You know what? Maybe Hiroki is actually a really big jerk. Maybe there's a guy on your team that's really awesome, and you just don't know it yet."
"But you don't know that, Mom! And Hiroki is really nice, so don't say bad things about him."
"When I was your age," Sakura hums, rocking back and forth in her seat. Hizashi rocks with her, playing idly with her hands. "When I was twelve, I really liked Sasuke-oji. I thought I loved him."
"I know, Mom. You told me that a million times."
"But I stopped after a while! See, these things go away." From across the table, she hears Naruto snort. (Well, Shizuka doesn't need to know how long it took for Sakura to get over Sasuke. The point is that she did.)
"Did you and Sasuke-oji date?"
"Nope. I don't even think we were friends, really. Just teammates."
"Oh." Shizuka falls quiet for a moment, and then asks, "Will things really be okay if Hiroki-kun isn't on my team?"
"Of course. And you can still see him outside of your training, after all."
"Okay." Another pause. "Can I tell you a secret?" Sakura turns to lend her ear, and her daughter leans in and whispers, "I had my first kiss with him last week."
"You're only twelve," she sputters.
"If I'm old enough to learn how to kill people, I'm old enough to kiss boys, Mom!"
"Ew," Hizashi says. "The only girl I'm ever going to kiss is Mommy." And just to prove his point, he leans up and plants a sloppy one on Sakura's chin. Sakura laughs and ruffles his hair.
"Was it a nice kiss?" she decides to ask, since what's done is done, she supposes. Even though—seriously, she's twelve.
Shizuka blushes. "Yeah. Hiroki is special. I'm going to marry him someday."
"You better bring him to meet Naruto-oji, or he's never going to be accepted into the clan."
"Okay." And only now does Shizuka's lips curve back into its usual smile; one that warms Sakura's heart in some weird motherly love. She's still not used to that. "Hiroki is going to be as great as Dad."
"As great? Or better?"
Shizuka thinks for a moment, snowy eyes thoughtful. (His eyes. They're his eyes.) "As great. No one could actually be better than Dad."
Hizashi shakes Sakura's hand, and she looks down. "Tell me another story about Daddy," he requests. He likes to ask about Neji because of how much everyone talks about him. As expected, Hizashi doesn't have a single memory of Neji—and it saddens Sakura to think that he never will.
She shakes all upsetting thoughts away, and sways in her seat again. "Hm, what should I tell you this time?"
"Sakura-chan, tell him about the time I forced him to eat three sticks of dango and he nearly threw up afterwards!" Naruto shouts.
"Or," Sai suggests, "the time he ignored medical advice and left the hospital, but tripped and fell flat on his face before he even made it to the front door."
"Man, I remember that! I'm so glad I was there to witness it, he literally did fall on his face because both of his arm were bandaged and he couldn't catch himself!" Naruto howls with laughter, and Sakura rolls her eyes, even though a quiet chuckle escapes her lips.
"I don't think Daddy was that great if he tripped all the time," Hizashi says with a slight frown. "Naruto-oji has a million stories of him tripping."
"He did trip quite a bit though," she agrees. "The first time I treated him at the hospital was because he tripped and fell out of a tree."
Shizuka laughs. "You told me that one!"
If Hizashi's expression is any indication, he's beginning to wonder if his father is as great as everyone says he is, so Sakura decides to save embarrassing stories for another day. If Neji is up there somewhere and watching over them, he's sure to be more than irritated by now.
"Okay, then how about the time he took down five enemies all at once…"
i guess i'll go home now
Sakura is the one who treats Hiroki when he gets seriously injured on one of his missions. He is a boy of soft brown hair and deep violet eyes, as violet as Sakura's eyes are green.
Shizuka bursts through the door halfway through the treatment, out of breath and hair disheveled. Her hitai-ate, which she keeps tied on her arm, has slid down to her wrist.
She's still so young, but being in this line of work, knows exactly how valuable life is. Sakura almost wishes she didn't.
When she's finished the treatment, she gives them some time alone. Just before the door closes behind her, she hears Shizuka scolding Hiroki with a shaky voice, "What did I tell you about being reckless, you idiot? You're still a genin, you're just going to get yourself killed if you try to look cool!"
"Heh, sorry…I really thought I had a handle on the situation…"
A boy with Naruto's recklessness, and Neji's kindness. A nice boy, Sakura decides.
A few minutes later, Shizuka leaves the room to give him some time to rest. Sakura is at the receptionist's desk, filling in some patient forms. "Do you want to go home together?" she asks her daughter. Shizuka nods with a tired smile.
They walk in silence, the sun setting over the cliff face. It's still early, but it's winter now—nights are longer and days are colder. The workers on the cliff face have already gone home for the evening, leaving Naruto's face, only half complete, unattended. (It took a few decades and several heartbreaks, but his dream is finally coming true.)
"Flesh wounds hurt, but emotional wounds hurt more, don't they?" Shizuka says.
"Yeah," Sakura replies quietly.
"I was so scared, Mom. That he was dead. When Tomoya told me that Hiroki-kun was injured, I just…"
"That's good, Shizuka. Don't forget that feeling. When you're trained to kill people, you have to remember what it's like to lose them, or else you'll lose what's best about you."
"But it sucks."
"But it's beautiful too, isn't it? If you weren't scared for Hiroki's life, you wouldn't have been as happy as you were to share your first kiss with him."
Shizuka is quiet for a moment. "Yeah, I guess so. What was your first kiss like, Mom?"
This question has Sakura stopping in her tracks for a moment. She hasn't thought about her first kiss for a very, very long time.
(A winter night like this one, with an unexpected but beautiful boy, one that she knew almost nothing about—one that she didn't know she wanted, and took a long time to realize she wanted—exhilarating but terrifying, a prelude to something so much bigger—)
Because she thought there would still be so many more kisses to come.
"It was…interesting," she decides on saying, for simplicity's sake.
"Who was it with? Sasuke-oji?"
"Of course not." Sakura waves her hand, laughing. "It was with your dad."
"But it was when you were twelve, right? So you've loved him since the beginning?"
"Not quite. But…it has been him since the beginning, I suppose."
"Trust me, it wasn't romantic at the time."
"I hope Hiroki-kun and I last long enough to get married," Shizuka says wistfully. "That'd be nice."
"That would definitely be nice."
"What's for dinner tonight?"
"I don't know, I haven't thought about that yet…"
An oddly reminiscent evening turned normal, Sakura walks home with Shizuka.
Sakura walks home.
A/N: I find people describing Neji's eyes as "opalescent" painfully redundant, so I decided to write an entire story based on a different description of them. (I didn't realize it would grow to such a monstrous length, but I am not sorry.) To me, this is how the ideal NejiSaku would happen: slowly and cautiously, but beautifully, with Sakura truly facing her feelings for Sasuke, and with Neji accepting that he doesn't have to do everything alone. And of course, Neji actually lives fully before dying. I hope you like this pairing a little more after reading this, because I definitely fell more in love with it with every word that I wrote.
If you have any suggestions to make this better, please let me know! I love this story more than I love a lot of my other stories, so if I have a chance to refine it, I would definitely do it.
(Also, I may post extended thoughts about this on my LJ, so if you guys have any questions or general opinions, please leave them here! The link is on my page.)