epilogue (april again, because this is how life passes you by: unnoticeably, in cycles that you think are always the same, except they're not, because every year, you breathe different air, you do different things, you feel different emotions surging through your veins. you change even though you don't notice. you are different than you were on this very day, one year ago. you are better.)
Neji is the first to go.
They all sit in a café near the train station, each of them nursing a caffeinated drink of some sort. Even though it's one o'clock of the afternoon and she still hasn't had lunch yet, with the coffee in her belly, Sakura is not hungry.
Even though Neji is the one studying in Tokyo, Hinata and her father go with him too, just to help him settle down. They'll be back in a day or two—just in time to see Shikamaru off, because he was too lazy to book his train ticket and only managed to get a crappy last minute one that leaves at midnight on a Wednesday.
Train stations in Japan are all about the minimalism, the sleek metal, the quick efficiency and clean surfaces that Sakura has never seen in America. It is only Neji's departure that reminds her that it won't be long before it's her turn, too.
"Why are you leaving so soon, anyway?" Ino asks with a slight twinge of betrayal in her voice. "I get Shikamaru and Neji, but doesn't school start in September for you?"
Sakura shrugs. "I don't know. My mom was the one who booked my flight, not me."
The truth that she doesn't tell is that her grandmother on her mother's side passed away just two days ago, and her flight next week is the latest one she can take without missing the funeral. No one knows this, of course, except for Sasuke—because she had learned the hard way, that keeping secrets from him is not something she ever wants to do.
(There had been a lot of yelling on his part. Of course, that may have actually been better than the staggering silence before the yelling commenced. There had been two days of that, and that had scared her more than anything. Sakura is composed on the outside, but that's only because she doesn't want to let on how afraid she really is underneath all of that.)
Sasuke understands, now. Or at least, he tries to. And when he doesn't, he doesn't fault her for it. That's why she loves him.
(And sometimes she wonders too, if it's appropriate to use that word, to say she loves someone—how does she know for sure? How is she to tell that they won't end up like her parents? She can't. No one ever knows for sure.)
"Sakura?" It's Naruto's voice that tugs her from her reverie.
"Huh?" She blinks the vision back into her eyes, to find everyone staring at her expectantly. "Sorry, I missed that. What did you say?"
"I asked you when your flight is exactly. So we can see you off!"
"Who said I wanted you to see me off?" she teases, as she often does with Naruto, which draws a laugh out of everyone. Naruto juts his bottom lip out in a pout, but it doesn't stay for long, as Sakura then relents her flight information.
Half an hour later, when they head to the platform and the generic woman's voice announces throughout the station that the next train will be arriving soon, everyone begins to say their goodbyes. Theirs are not quite as final as Sakura's, and, unabashed despite knowing how all boys around here feel about being touched by a girl, she pulls Neji into a tight hug. She feels him stiffen in her arms for a brief moment before he pats her awkwardly on the back, but she doesn't care.
Neji is the most diligent and sensible out of all of the boys, and no matter where in the world she is, she's going to miss how great of a help he always is and how willing he always is to lend an ear or a shoulder. He made her laugh with his occasional embarrassment or cluelessness—and especially his accent when he spoke English. That's her favorite part about him.
"We'll keep in touch?" he asks when she pulls out of the hug. A faint blush dusts his cheeks, and Naruto snickers about something like having a crush on Sakura.
She nods and smiles. "Facebook does wonders. Not that it matters, since you go on it maybe once a month."
"I'll go on more, for you." A twinkle in his eye.
Sakura grins and they fist bump to seal the deal. "Alright. There'll be consequences if you don't!"
Neji, Hinata, and Hinata's father step onto the train and the doors slide shut with the warning bells, and as Sakura waves goodbye at them with everyone else through the window, she is still able to smile because it hasn't quite hit her yet.
Shikamaru, predictably, is next.
Ino is all prideful but sniffly, which Sakura thinks is a terrible combination. She's fussing over him like a mother who is afraid for her son and a girl who just desperately doesn't want her childhood friend to leave her behind.
"Ino," Shikamaru has to say solemnly, holding her by the shoulders to keep her steady and at arm's length. "I'm not going to war. I'm not going to die. I'm coming back."
"Do I look sad enough for you to be going to war?" she snaps.
Yes, Sakura thinks. Yes you do.
But then Shikamaru says something that doesn't quite make sense to her, and Ino puffs her cheeks in feigned anger for only a moment, and then she relents, the smile blossoming across her face the way it always does despite her best efforts whenever she's around Shikamaru.
There are a million things Sakura wants to say to Shikamaru, simply because they have never talked too much in the years that she's known him. She wants to pull his hair loose and laugh at him, she wants to throw impossible equations and problems and formulas at him and watch as he solves them. She wants to lie in the grass and watch the clouds together—to make him laugh a little more, because he never really seemed to laugh enough.
Shikamaru only briefly glances at her during his conversation with Ino and Sasuke as the train pulls up, but he steps away for a quick moment.
"See you around?" he offers, since he's never been very good at goodbyes.
Sakura nods, and smiles. "Remember to breathe," she tells him. "When it's snowing, when it's sunny, when it's raining. Always breathe."
Always love the moment you exist in.
He watches her for a short moment, before his hand falls onto her head and he roughly ruffles her hair. "Sure," he drawls. "You too."
And she continues to smile, even as Shikamaru boards his train and he rumbles away, disappearing beyond the horizon.
And then, of course—and then it's her turn.
The time that ticks by is unreal. The hours slip through her fingers, the minutes disappear from sight, the seconds fade away as though they were never there at all.
She spends the day before she leaves with Sasuke. The cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, and she wonders how she looks to him, with her wildly colored hair and the flowers he's seen a million times before. He spends most of the time brooding, his hands shoved into his pockets and sending her a wordless glance every once in a while.
I love you, she wants to tell him, but maybe it's still too soon.
But if not now, then when?
"What are you thinking about?" she asks him as she tugs one of his hands out of his pocket and laces their fingers together.
"You," he answers honestly, in a way that has her torn between smiling and crying.
Sasuke has been a little more open lately—and while it's something that she gladly welcomes, it still feels weird. He doesn't pull away when she holds his hand, and he doesn't look away and scowl with a blush dusting his cheeks when she says something bold. Instead, he levels a steady gaze at her, hot enough for her to be the one who breaks eye contact instead.
"What about me?" she asks, even though she isn't sure she wants to know the answer. He's looking at her like that right now, dark eyes burning and his grip tightening ever so slightly on her fingers.
He's the first to look away, down at their feet. "About how I don't want you to go."
It stings Sakura, how he understands—how they both understand that this is how it has to be, and how they both know that there's nothing they can do about it.
She forces a smile. "Like Shikamaru said. It's not like I'm going to war. I'll come back."
Ignoring the people around them, Sasuke tugs her closer, and one of his hands gently cradles her face as he kisses her. It's a gentle kiss; the kind that she never wants to end because the entire world stops, and all she can feel is how close Sasuke is, how warm Sasuke is, how perfect Sasuke is.
It's stupid, Sakura thinks, to feel like the world is ending right now. But she supposes, in a way, it is. But only because room has to be made for a new world to grow.
"I—" The rest of the statement chokes her, and she can't find the courage to say it. Love you. I love you.
With his other hand finds her other cheek, he kisses her forehead. If he noticed her stutter, he lets it slide, and she relaxes against his touch.
She spends the entire night crying, so by the time he sees her off at the airport, she'll have run out of tears to cry.
"Do you have everything? You're sure you didn't leave anything behind at home?"
Sakura obediently stands still as her father fusses over her, uncannily similar to the way her mother was acting before she first flew to Japan on her own. It's a little ironic, in a way.
"Yes, Dad," she answers exasperatedly in English. "And even if I did forget something, you could just mail it to me later."
She watches as her father chews through his bottom lip in worry. "It's a long flight," he says.
"You'll be okay?"
She continues to speak in English, "All things considered, I'm not the one who is in control of my life once that plane takes off." A smile wiggles its way to her lips despite the situation as her father's brow knits tighter together in anxiety. Maybe if she said a little more, he would just demand her to stay. "I'm just kidding, Dad. Calm down. I'll be fine."
He smooths down her hair that he had originally mussed up in the first place. "Your friends are staring at you," he says.
"They're staring at you," she corrects him. "Because you're acting like you're ten years old."
"No," he shoots back. "It's because you speak English at the speed of light, and Japanese like you're ten years old."
They stare at each other for a moment, and start to laugh. She's going to miss this.
"Go say bye to your friends," her father tells her, gently, and nudges her in the direction of the small crowd gathered not too far away. Sakura steps forward, hesitation in her movements. When Naruto catches her eye, he smiles broadly and holds out his arms in a hug.
On most occasions, Sakura would either laugh and avoid him, or appease him with a modest half-hug—but today, she steps easily into him and buries her face into his neck. Naruto's arms wrap around her tightly as they sway a little on the spot—and Sakura closes her eyes, and breathes him in.
"Do you really have to go?" he asks meekly into her hair.
"I'll be back," she promises, even more feebly than him. Dammit. She was supposed to have gotten all the negative feelings out last night. Why are they returning now?
When did these people become so important to her? How did they worm their way underneath her skin?
When she moved to Japan, she had thought that this is just a temporary home. The people here don't matter, because she doesn't know what her life will be like now that her parents have separated. She could be on this side of the world today, and on the other side of the world the next. It was best not to get attached, she had thought—or else there will just be painful goodbyes, exactly like her parents falling apart.
She didn't want to get attached.
(But she is so attached, so attached it hurts, so terribly attached that knowing she won't be seeing them every day from now on makes it almost impossible for her to breathe.)
"Sakura? Are you okay?"
Naruto is holding her at arm's length by the shoulders, staring at her worriedly. Sakura blinks away the unshed tears and clears her throat.
"Yeah, I'm okay. What, you think I'm getting emotional over this?"
"You can't fool us, you know," Ino snaps.
When Sakura says nothing, Hinata offers an encouraging smile. "We'll miss you too," she replies to Sakura's unsaid words.
"No one said I was going to miss you," she mutters.
Ino reaches out and pokes the bottom lip that she didn't realize was jutting out in a slight pout. "You're not making a very convincing argument," she singsongs.
"I—" Sakura tries, but finally decides to relent. "Shut up."
"Aw," Naruto coos. "She's going to miss us!"
An announcement rings throughout the airport, alerting them that Sakura's flight has now begun boarding. Her hands subconsciously tighten into fists. No. This is happening too fast.
There are still so many things left that she wants to say to all of them—and to Neji and Shikamaru too. She had smiled when she saw them off because it hadn't hit her yet like it hit her now—that she's leaving and this is what growing up feels like, it's unbearable goodbyes and unfinished sentences and chances lost. It hits her like nothing has ever hit her before, and the sudden desire to stay is so strong that she finds herself rooted to the spot and unable to move.
She can't smile now. She can't smile and wave goodbye and step on the plane like it's nothing. It's not nothing. It's not.
"Sakura." She suddenly finds Sasuke standing right in front of her, gripping her shoulders and expression a painful mix of sad and sure. "Sakura, breathe."
"Sakura." His grip tightens on her shoulders, tight enough to make her frown from the pain. "Tell me again why you're going back."
She searches his face, confused. "For school."
"And why are you going to school?"
"To study medicine."
"Right. You're going to be a doctor. You're going to be the best doctor you can be. That's your dream, Sakura—remember that. Us here, the people that you're leaving behind—we are not your dreams. Weren't you the one who told me that?"
"That's not fair, Sasuke." Her voice comes out weak, much weaker than she has ever wanted to sound in front of him. "You're not allowed to use that against me."
When he kisses her forehead, it's the gentlest he's ever been to her. And then he whispers against her skin, words that make her eyes widen and her heart skip a beat, but she can't be sure because he was so quiet that she almost couldn't catch it—
"What?" she asks, breathless. "What did you say?"
("I love you." He said, "I love you.")
When Sakura looks at Sasuke now, most of the sadness has left him, but his sureness remains. "Be amazing, Sakura. Be amazing and come back to show us."
And when he says it like that, she can't find it in herself not to believe it. Looking at Sasuke makes her know that she can do this. She can achieve her dreams and be happy. It might take a while, but she will come back and they will still be here, waiting for her.
And it doesn't occur to say it back too—as her father has all of her papers in order and is leading her to the boarding gate, it doesn't occur to her at all. That she could say it back—to Ino who has always been there, to Hinata who has never been anything but supportive, to Naruto who shines despite the darkest of situations, to—to Sasuke, who she holds so dear and close even when she's asleep—
It's only when she's boarded her plane and is waiting for it to take off that it finally occurs to her that she could say it back—that she loves them too.
She purses her lips in regret, but after a moment, smiles instead. It's alright. They already know.
And even if they don't, then all she has to do is tell them next time.
A/N: I couldn't have Sasuke go this entire story always feeling inferior to Sakura, so I let him have the spotlight this time. ;)
Whew, and this is the end, for real! This story was originally inspired by Kimi to Boku, and along the way, Bokura ga Ita helped too. I know slice of life isn't the most exciting genre out there, and I felt that the entire time I wrote this, but I love this story in the way every little thing, every flash of emotion runs deep in your bones and never quite leaves you, because ah, I know this feeling, you know this feeling, we have all felt what the characters have felt.
I want to thank those who praised my characterization of Sasuke. I will be honest: until you guys pointed it out, I have never, ever felt that he was different from everyone else's characterizations. This is the Sasuke of my heart: quiet but kind, with a typhoon of emotions just underneath his skin that he carefully keeps concealed. He doesn't smile with his mouth but he smiles with his eyes, and he loves with every cell in his body and he doesn't know how to stop. The fact that he really is different from other writers' interpretations and you guys still accepted him, and even liked him, makes me warm all the way to my toes, because this is my favorite Sasuke too. This is the Sasuke that I desperately hope still exists.
It's been a great ride, everyone! Thanks so much!