There was very little around the house that would hint at the fact that he was no longer living alone.

Sasuke came to that conclusion one late evening, while he wandered from room to room, up and down the stairs and through the many intricate hallways, in an effort to relieve himself of his general state of boredom. He'd returned from a mission earlier that day, and he'd been surprised to find the old Uchiha Mansion completely deserted, all the lights out and the front door securely locked.

It was, obviously, not the first time that he came home to an empty house since he married, and yet, he always found himself strangely disconcerted by the image.

He took a shower and changed out of his uniform in an old T-shirt and a comfortable pair of sweatpants. He ran a towel through his spiky hair and wondered if he should simply disregard his earlier actions, head outside, and spar one last time before the sun went down. But the tiredness that seemed to have etched itself deep in his bones made him push that thought away. It wasn't the type of tiredness that itched, burned, or rendered him unconscious. It was the type that settled heavily in his muscles and his bones and made him want to sit down and give up, if only for a second, his busy, active life; it made him want to relax, alone—alert, but unmoving—with his thoughts, while carefully repressing those of his monsters.

Being all too familiarized with every type of exhaustion existent on the face of the planet, Sasuke used to do exactly that a lot before Sakura. He would lie down on the sofa in his apartment, lock the door and pull the curtains shut, and he would do nothing; he would read a book and sip a cup of tea, enjoying the silence and the solitude.

Nowadays, his routine seemed to have changed—subtly, stealthily, without him even noticing the transition. Nowadays, instead of being empty and cold, his relaxation hours were filled with warmth; he would sit down at the table, in the kitchen, while his wife busied herself with cooking, often with a book in front of him as a pretense, and he would listen to her rambles. Whether she talked about gossip, inane matters, serious situations, whether she hummed a soft melody or lined up medical terms that he could never fully understand or follow, he would be there, and he would be listening.

Opening the door to an empty house that night, it was as if a loneliness he had never before noticed permeated the air trapped inside of it. Sasuke had always been alone and he had always enjoyed it—or, at least, that was what he told himself. What was more, with a friend like Naruto, no one could blame him that he needed hours upon hours of silence. Yet Sakura's chatter was different. He had no clue why, couldn't quite put his finger on it as much as he tried, because even though she attempted, over and over, to engage him in her one-sided conversations, he didn't offer her more answers that he offered Naruto, and if he were to be perfectly honest, he'd had deeper and more important conversations with the man himself than he'd ever had with her.

Perhaps it was because he liked her voice much better. It was softer, tenderer, more feminine and less loud. There was no pressure that came attached with the sound of it, no need to answer, to deny, to push back. Naruto constantly sought to challenge him, to prove points without caring to understand that Sasuke couldn't or didn't want to see them. Sakura was not like that. She talked because she did, and that was all there was to it. And it soothed him down to his very core—this chatty presence of hers—as much as he hated to admit it, because, having her there, in his house… Sasuke secretly realized that it was what he had wanted all along. That he had always unconsciously associated the idea of non-loneliness with pink hair and green eyes. That she had meant so much to him even before their marriage, throughout their entire life, from the moment that he set his sight on her for the first time, a silly girl with bright, innocent eyes.

He hated that a house that should have been filled to the brim with her neon personality failed to offer him the same feeling of comfort. He hated that he couldn't come home and smell her scent and be enveloped by the same peaceful emotions he felt when she was beside him. After all, he still enjoyed his solitude, and he loathed the fact that his state of calm and peace seemed to have become so dependent on the steady pulse of her chakra, on the idea that she was somewhere under the same roof as him, even if in the complete opposite wing of the mansion. Most of all, though, he decided as he wandered the halls of his house, he hated the fact that she was on his mind even when she hadn't given him a reason to be there.

For all the mess she used to cause when she was younger, she didn't take up much space around the house, and she didn't personalize much of it, either. Save for the soft, beige blanket she only sometimes left hung over the back of the couch on particularly cold days, to the naked eye, there would hardly be a single piece of evidence to prove that she lived and slept there seven days a week. The kitchen was the same as it had been in his bachelor days—although, granted, his fridge was now fully stocked. She always cleaned up everything she used and stored it neatly away in the same places his own mother had designated so long ago. She hadn't hung a single photograph on the walls and she never abandoned a single book on the coffee table near which she was always lounging.

There was only a small shelf in the library, offered by him on their first day of marriage, overflowing with ancient medical textbooks that he doubted she would be able to lift were it not for her chakra-infused strength. There was only an old photo of their genin team framed and resting upon her nightstand. There was only half of his wardrobe, bursting with colour, scented with feminine perfume, filled to the brim with silks and cottons and high-heels that he could see perfectly well how hard she tried to maintain in a semblance of order for the benefit of his own OCD self. There was only her sleeping form in the middle of his bed when he came home from a long mission and she was too exhausted from her own deeds to sense his presence and awaken.

Usually, he'd be so annoyed that he was bothered by the fact that she wasn't there that he'd work himself into a bad mood that crashed upon her when she finally returned from the hospital.

That night, he stood inside their walk-in closet and fingered the soft material of a deep green dress—and wondered why his mind was working the way it was and in the direction that it was. He wondered, once more, why this woman that, as a young girl had been so messy and disorganised, had had a sudden behavioural change when she moved in with him. He wondered if he was simply being paranoid, unwilling, yet again, to face the fact that she had grown and that he hadn't been there to witness, become accustomed, and take those changes in stride. Regardless of the motive, it seemed to him that Sakura had not yet settled into her new home. That she wasn't truly, one hundred percent comfortable there. Months had passed, and yet, there were still unopened boxes clustered in her corner of the closet. She'd claimed they contained little trinkets that only served as memories, and that she saw no point in unpacking them.

Sasuke wondered if perhaps the reason why she had left them there was so that she wouldn't have to re-pack them.

He quickly realized that he was being irrational—and he hated himself even more for that.

Sakura wouldn't leave him. She'd made her vows to him and she'd accepted to spend the rest of her life by his side the moment she slid that ring on his finger. But even that mattered less, because in the first place, she was Sakura, and, with or without a vow, she still wouldn't leave him. He knew that.

But a strange, poisonous feeling churning deep into his gut told him that he'd made the same mistake with other people, as well. He'd believed in them, as well. And they'd left him—betrayed and left him alone.

And, even with his open acknowledgement of his irrationality, Sasuke couldn't help but take a step back and rewind all the progress that he might have made, be it small or large, every single time he came home and she wasn't there, either by presence or spirit. He took a step back, and then another, and another, because if there was one thing that he knew for sure, that was that he couldn't go through that disappointment again. And he would rather never, ever be fully happy, than be put in such a situation.

Because Sakura was more than his wife. She was his last chance at a relatively normal life. If he ever lost her, by whatever means or circumstances, he would crumble—but not if he never let her in, in the first place.

And with his centuries old self-defense mechanism crackling with power around him, he realized that there was hardly any real danger of that, panic aside. It would take a powerhouse to break through it… and he would spend the rest of his days ensuring that he would never allow her close enough for that to happen.

Sasuke was surprised to hear Ino's voice when he stepped into the house that late March afternoon. He frowned; he hadn't realized the two women had made up. The waters had seemed murky and tense at their wedding and he hadn't seen them together since—but it quickly occurred to him that might as well have been because he never spent much time with his wife or in her social circle.

If the relaxed giggles he could hear ringing down the winding staircase were any indication, he concluded he'd hit the nail on the head with that last assumption.

Sighing tiredly, he started his trek upstairs. His muscles burned in protest; he'd been on patrol duty that morning and he'd been training for the most part of the afternoon. It wasn't unusual for him to arrive home dead on his feet, but he had a feeling he'd outdone himself this time around.

"You are going to be gorgeous!" Ino's remark reached his ears as he reached the landing on the first floor. "Not that you aren't already—but you know what I mean!"

His wife laughed—a happy laugh; the type of laugh that he hadn't heard in a long time, he then realized. "Ino, I look like a disco-ball."

"Hey!" the blonde complained loudly. "You're supposed to shine on your birthday! And besides, you should be thankful! This is a much classier outfit than what I originally had in mind!"

"And who exactly should I be thankful to? The store? Their suppliers?"

"Ha ha," the blonde countered, unamused. "You should be thankful to me, in the first place, Forehead."

"Leave me alone, Pig," Sakura laughed. "Go back to where you came from."

"Right," she replied, and then, as if she only just remembered, "I have my shift at the hospital—I haven't forgotten. Now, I'll probably be too busy with the preparations to help you get ready next week—but you just slip into the exact same clothes you have on now and wear the exact same make-up I did for you today, and you'll be just fine."

Once more, he heard his wife's laugh. "Thanks, Mom."

The door opened when he was halfway down the hallway, and Ino slipped past him with only a mild greeting. "Hey, Uchiha," she said.

He sensed her animosity—it had been there for so long that it would have been strange to find it missing from her voice—so he decided not to dignify her with a response as he walked into the room she had just left.

The sight that met him made him stop dead in his tracks.

Sakura looked absolutely stunning. Her hair was curly and mussed, reaching a little past her shoulders, and her eyes were darkened with make-up. Far from the innocent impression she'd adopted at their wedding, she looked gorgeous and downright sinful. Miles of leg, open back, high-heeled shoes and a dress that melded to her every curve to bring them out with, quite literally, glitter and sparkle.

She caught sight of him a second too late—by the time she did, he had already regained his composure.

"Hey, Sasuke-kun," she greeted with a brilliant smile.

He grunted, and seeing as he was finally able to move, made his way to the bed, where he began to unload his weapons.

From the corner of his eye, all too aware of her delicious presence, he saw her move into their wardrobe. After he was done, he followed her in search for a pair of sweatpants he could lounge in after his planned shower.

He found her standing in front of the mirror, twisting and turning, the sequins on her dress catching the light and sending small, colourful beams around the room, as she carefully studied her reflection.

Eventually, she sighed. "I don't feel that this dress is me at all."

He grunted in agreement, because he knew she was expecting a response. "You're showing everything."

She smiled—but it was sad, he noticed after a second. As she bent down to remove her shoes, Sasuke wondered if he had said something wrong.

"Yeah," she answered, a moment too late. It was impossible for him not to notice the quieter, more defeated tint to her voice. "I couldn't escape Ino's claws, though."

"Hn," he repeated, followed by a blanket of awkward silence.

There was something he was supposed to say, then, something that was expected of him, something that he should have found completely normal—he could feel it more and more often and in more and more situations; the pressure in the air around him, his mind scrambling for a response he knew his mouth would refuse to spell even if it was found.

He gave up sooner than he had the time before, and exited the room without another word.

Sakura frowned as she gazed at her reflection in the full-length mirror pinned to the wall of the walk-in closet she shared with her husband. She didn't know what Ino had been thinking when she forced her into such an ensemble—and, worse still, she didn't know what she, herself, had been thinking when she accepted, even if all she had promised was to try it on, not to actually wear it out.

The dress showed everything—every dip and curve she hadn't even known she'd had. She didn't look like herself… but she'd never looked better.

Sakura wasn't a beautiful woman. She was cute—and hot if she dressed properly—but she wasn't beautiful. Her hair was pink, of all colours, and it clashed with her green eyes. She wasn't tall and she didn't have the perfect curves Ino did. She was plain, simply put. She had a nice body because she was a kunoichi and physical activity was a large part of her life, and she could step up the look because she had green eyes that contrasted with black eye-shadow. But she wasn't beautiful. She'd seen enough gorgeous women she couldn't even dream about holding a candle to. That had never bothered her, though, because Sakura didn't live for anybody but herself, and she knew that, while she wasn't stunning, she was strong, intelligent, and compassionate.

But then there was Sasuke. Sasuke, who, with a single glance, could set her on fire. Sasuke, who had always been good-looking to the point of ridiculousness. Sasuke, a man that every woman in Konoha—and probably the entire world—would want by her side.

And there was the fact that he'd just looked at her dressed in what was possibly the sexiest outfit she had ever worn and didn't even bath an eyelash.

She should have seen this coming, she chastised herself. He'd seen her naked, after all, so a dress that didn't cover as much as it showed wouldn't impress him. In the end, who knew if he was even attracted to her at all? Sasuke didn't marry her because of that—and he certainly didn't marry her because he loved her or any of her assets or flaws. He didn't even marry her because she was a talented kunoichi and he'd thought her suitable for becoming a member of the Uchiha Clan. He only married her because she was the only woman he could stand—he'd said it himself—and, most probably, because he knew she was the one and only woman who would remain completely devoted to him no matter what.

At this point in his life, Sasuke had been through enough, too much for him to bother to make an effort to change for someone—someone who would need to be wooed and courted and won, who wouldn't understand his grunts and glares, who wouldn't allow him to get away with everything he did and said.

That was the sole reason why, today, she could call herself Mrs. Uchiha.

So, as she slid down the zipper on the side of her dress, Sakura pushed away her insecurities and resolved to never listen to Ino again.

She may not be worthy of him in someone else's eyes—sometimes, not even in her own. She may not be his perfect match and she may not be everything he deserved. But she could be what he needed—and she resolved that would never, ever change.

He could still hear the music screeching from where he sat outside, on the rooftop of the club, the vibration rattling the walls and making his heart pound in the same rhythm as the current song. Three minutes in, Sasuke had decided that he hated every single aspect related to a nightclub, from the heat to the loudness, exactly as he had known he would, so he'd ensured Sakura was surrounded by her friends and stealthily slipped outside.

He had been there for almost fifteen minutes before she caught up with him.

First, he heard her expert landing. Then he sensed her presence, and as every muscle in his body seemed to relax, dissipating the adrenaline that was instantly released in his veins the moment his keen ears picked up a strange noise, Sasuke caught her little footsteps—louder than usual, courtesy of her high heels—approaching him.

It was another second before she sat down beside him, gingerly pulling at the hem of her short dress, choosing a distance that was close enough so he could smell her delicate perfume, yet far enough so that their bodies had no way of accidentally touching.

The first words spoken were hers, as usual.

"Enjoying yourself?" she teased with a small smile.

He grunted. "It's you who should be enjoying herself."

"I am." She nodded, and then sighed, pulling her knees up, the weight of her feet resting on her pointy heels. "I just needed some time. Everybody kind of jumped on me back there. It's a bit overwhelming."

He remained silent, unsure of what to say other than admit that he agreed, which was something that he was sure she already knew. He'd been overwhelmed himself, and he hadn't even come close to being the centre of attention.

For her friend's birthday, Ino had rented out an entire nightclub—and, not only that, but she'd filled it. She'd filled it completely and to the brim with people who knew Sakura and loved Sakura and couldn't wait to wrap her up in a hug and offer her a present. His surprise had been brief this time. He was slowly growing accustomed to the sheer number of people his wife had managed to gain by her side. Actually, the more he was exposed to the phenomena, the more he wondered why he had ever even unconsciously doubted either her ability to do it or the possibility of it happening, in the first place. After all, if anybody could win the hearts of an entire village, that was Sakura—and he should have been aware of that from the very beginning.

The chilly night air washed over them in a sudden gust of wind, ruffling his black locks, causing him him push them back in annoyance. The snow had melted a month before and not a single snowflake had been in sight since then, but the cold had persisted.

Sakura shivered beside him.

Glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he remembered something that had been nagging him from the moment they left the house.

"You changed your dress." Instead of the sparkly get-up he had found her wearing that day, almost a week before, she was sporting a pale pink dress, tight and a bit on the short side, with a shoulder covered in matching chiffon. He'd been surprised to see her walk out of their bedroom dressed as she was, fully expecting—and prepared for—something completely different.

"Yeah," was her only answer.

"Why?" he pressed.

"It wasn't me." She shrugged, smiling. "Ino can dress up anybody and anything, really," she said, giving a small laugh, "She just has that sense about fashion. But she can't change people or force them into something they're not. I like being a bit more covered."

Considering her explanation, he concluded that there was nothing unreasonable or amiss about it. He, himself, had been surprised to see her in such a revealing outfit. Now, the heels were high, her legs were on full display. Her hair was up in a messy up-do that he had no idea how much time it required anymore, as she seemed to wear it every time, and her eyes were smoky. But there was nothing extremely provocative about her appearance, as had been the case with the other ensemble. There was nothing to scream confidence and seduction like that dress had, from its every sequin.

And, not that he was bothered by what she wore anytime or anyplace, but, not for the first time, he wondered if he should have just told her that she looked good; if he should have said, even now, before the moment passed and opening his mouth became awkward, that she'd taken his breath away that day; that she hadn't looked out of place; that she'd definitely been the one to wear the dress, and not the other way around. But, as usual, he remained quiet.

A moment passed in silence.

"They're probably looking for you," he said instead.

"I know," she told him. Then she huffed a laugh. "It's insane in there. Ino says it's such a milestone, turning twenty-one. I personally don't know… I feel much older sometimes."

Sasuke turned to face her only for a brief moment—but a brief moment was all he needed in order to register each and every one of her features.

She wasn't looking at him; she was looking in the distance, at the grey-tinted horizon. The sky was covered with thick, grey clouds, and night had fallen almost completely. Below them, Konoha had turned to life, pulsing more powerfully than the very sound of music blasting inside the nightclub. Lights twinkled in the distance, while voices lifted up from the cobbled streets. And Sakura seemed to be taking it all in, absorbing everything, down to every last detail, with a keenness he was sure only she was capable of; it was as if she was savoring every sight, every smell, every piece of information that came through every single sensory lane.

There were no wrinkles on her face, but the wisdom in her eyes, all the memories, pain, and knowledge behind them, rendered that irrelevant. She was right; she was much older than twenty-one. All of them were.

Having been aware of that for a long time, he wondered why it suddenly bothered him to face the knowledge that she formed part of that group, as well. He wondered why he suddenly felt as though he missed her innocence, her unknowing smile, her sweet lack of insight or information; he wondered why he missed the outgoing, untainted, happy-go-lucky side of her that was now gone, hidden beneath layers upon layers of a rational woman that had been through so much, that had seen life and death with her own eyes, that had been covered in both her blood and that of many others, so many times.

He wondered if that was because the woman that she had become knew him—and knew him in his entirety. She didn't gaze up at him with stars in her eyes, pegging him for a perfect man that she wished she could stretch far enough to reach. Sasuke had wanted her to see that. He'd fought long and hard to open her eyes and dispel that illusion. His attempt against her life, he supposed, was what had ensured, in the end, that they were wide open. Now, in front of this woman, he wasn't and didn't have to be perfect. He didn't have to pretend to be someone he was not. She knew him. She even understood him, to a certain degree. But, apparently, a part of him, in times such as these… a part of him missed the easy-going relationship they'd once shared—a relationship with a girl that thought the boy was only capable of the best, a girl that looked at him with admiration and considered him a hero.

Somewhere along the way, Sakura had stopped questioning his bad behaviour—because she'd learned that was what was to be expected of him. Instead, she questioned his good intentions. She wondered why he offered his help when she needed it, why he left her breakfast on the table when she slept in, why he ordered her to rest when she was exhausted. She questioned the good side of him—the good side of him that she'd once insisted was there, and whose existence he'd done everything in his power to disprove. Could it be that he'd finally convinced her of that? What he'd always imagined would be a blissful realization proved to be irritating and annoying instead.

One of the reasons why he'd asked for her hand in marriage was because she'd always made him want to be a better person. But, as it turned out, Sakura didn't expect that of him anymore—and she would no longer help by pushing him in the right direction.

He sighed. "Aa."

From the corner of his eye, he saw her smile, and silence once again descended upon them. Sasuke's mind continued to be flooded with an array of thoughts that would have blocked all of his senses, had they not been already hyper sensitized by her presence.

Eventually, fueled by the darkness of the night and the protection of their solitude, he worked up the courage to ask a question that had been plaguing him for the longest time.

"Where are your parents?" he blurted out. They hadn't been at the wedding and he'd overlooked that, justifying it through the fact that they had all the right not to agree to their daughter's marriage to an ex-criminal. He was alright with that; after all, they weren't the only ones. But he hadn't seen or heard from them since, and as foolish as it might sound, he had expected them to be at her birthday party.

Only when he fully turned his head did he realize that the surprised expression on her face had nothing to do with the suddenness of his question. He raised an eyebrow.

"My parents are dead, Sasuke-kun," she finally told him, after another second of silence. Frowning, she shook her head. "Sorry, I thought you knew." She looked away. Sasuke wanted to stick his head in the sand never pull it out again. "They died… during the first months of the war. An attack on a civilian camp…" She shrugged, ran a hand over her right arm, and attempted a small smile. It didn't hide the pain she was feeling, and neither did her following words. "Wrong place, wrong time, I guess."

He swallowed. "Sakura, I…"

"It's fine," she dismissed, looking at him, her smile turning genuine. "You had no way of knowing, and… I don't know why I imagined that you did. It's just… it seems like you've been back with us for so long… sometimes, I forget you ever left."

Sasuke had no idea what to say to that, not even after scrambling his mind twice for a proper response. All he could consider was an apology, but she'd interrupted him before he could say it, and he knew from experience that another try wouldn't be worth it.

With another smile, Sakura stood, the movement fluid and graceful even as the high heels she was wearing added at least six inches to her height.

"I better head back," she announced. She was halfway across the roof when she stopped to add words that would hang in the air long after she had left, even with the wind that should have carried them away. "Thanks for listening to me, Sasuke-kun."

"Sasuke-kun!" The call stopped him from advancing further into the hallway, compelling him to turn around and walk the remaining steps to the doorway of the kitchen.

Unsurprisingly, he saw his wife inside—dressed in a pair of light-washed jeans and an old, long-sleeved top, with her hair up in a bun and her green eyes sparkling with a smile.

Briefly, it occurred to Sasuke that there was a world of difference between the woman standing in front of him at the moment and the one that had been celebrating her twenty-first birthday the night before. Even more briefly, he thought that he preferred this version more—that he preferred her in flats, and not high heels; that he preferred her hair freshly-washed and natural, not full, curly, and styled to perfection; that he preferred her green eyes bright and clean, not darkened by glittery eye-shadow; that he preferred her in casual outfits, short as she was, with all of her little imperfections on sight, in his kitchen, smiling only at him, talking only to him, focusing all of her attention on him.

That was not to say her presence there failed to surprise him. After all, she'd had a long night; he'd left her sleeping and gone to have his morning shower in another room, and he'd obviously not expected to hear his name being called as he prepared to walk out of the house.

"I made breakfast," she announced, smiling brightly while clasping her hands behind her back.

The Uchiha frowned. The table was full and the kitchen filled with the smell of a freshly cooked meal, and it was the last action he'd thought he'd be on the receiving end of that morning. But it seemed as though Sakura had a knack for doing everything he least expected when he least expected it. A voice in the back of his mind told him that was something he should have gotten used to by then, but the truth was, there was no pattern in her actions.

"I made you your favorite," she continued, taking a seat at the table. "I was hoping Tsunade wouldn't need you so early in the morning, and I guess I was lucky."

With slow, cautious footsteps, he approached her, pulling out a chair for himself. "Why are you doing this?"

She waited until he was sat down and his gaze was once again focused on her before answering, with a genuine smile that was wide enough to show the small dimples in her cheeks. "I wanted to thank you—for yesterday. I know you hate parties and you didn't show up last year, but you did now—without a fuss, without complaint. And you stayed with me until the end." She shrugged. "And I just wanted you to know that I am really, really grateful for that."

No sooner had the words come out of her mouth, that Sasuke wanted, quite literally and once again, to hit himself.

It was true. Sakura had invited him to her birthday party the year before; the war had been over for a couple of months and, when she came to knock on his door, she claimed the celebration would only consist of a small, intimate gathering with the closest of their friends. A meal, a drink, a conversation. She hadn't asked for more. Even so, he hadn't bothered to show up.

Naruto had drilled him for it. Sakura had never mentioned it again.

In a way, with that knowledge taken into account, Sasuke could see that she was right in expecting him to miss out this time, as well. She hadn't even invited him, probably to avoid an awkward situation and a harsh refusal, and the night before, she'd seemed genuinely surprised that he was willing to walk her to her destination; she'd thanked him for accompanying her and, all night long, whenever she escaped her friends and caught a glimpse of him, alone or with the dobe, her green eyes had been wide—wide and surprised.

And all of that was perfectly justified. After all, considering how he had refused to participate in a small meal with people he'd known for a lifetime, why would he want to attend a raging party, completely blown out of proportions by her blonde best friend?

It was understandable, he told himself. But, at the same time, he failed at denying his annoyance. Why couldn't she see that their relationship was now different? Why couldn't she see that he was putting his own effort into making their marriage work? Why did she act as if she didn't need his struggle? Why was she so willing to allow him to get his way in everything and get away with everything? And, most of all, why did she thank him all the time?

She smiled. "I hope you like it, Sasuke-kun. I listened to everything it said in the notebook."

The words bothered him. They scraped at his mind and made his heart contract painfully in his chest.

Sakura was not so much into cooking. Her food tasted delicious, that was something he had no intention of denying, even though he was aware he would probably also never say it out loud so she could hear it, but she only made simple dishes. He could vaguely recall her mentioning that she had never truly had the time to experiment with food, and she almost always had two meals at the hospital and skipped the third, so there was no point in even trying to fit that in her busy schedule.

Once, about three weeks since their wedding, his wife had stumbled across a box; a box filled with objects from his past that had somehow managed to escape the ravages of the war and the reconstruction of the mansion—and, along with that, avoid him and his wrath. And, inside, among other things she'd never questioned him about, she'd found a notebook, no doubt his late mother's, filled with recipes. She'd only asked one question: could she use it? He'd shrugged and never even glanced at it.

Sakura had never cooked much before their marriage and she didn't cook much afterwards. But, ever since then, every time she did, she tried one of his mother's recipes; and, every time, she asked him if it tasted the same as in his memories.

She nailed it this time, and as his mouth and his senses were filled with the aroma of the past, his senses twisted in anticipation. A second passed before he realized he was expecting her to prompt his opinion.

But she never did. And, throughout the course of the entire meal, she never said another word to him.

Coincidentally, it was the first time that Sasuke consciously remembered how filled with warmth, chatter and laughter their first months as husband and wife had been—and as the unexpected cold enveloped him, seeping through his skin and into his bones, he found himself at odds with the deafening silence surrounding them: instead of embracing it, he felt painfully, overwhelmingly aware of it, for the first time in decades.

Sakura never touched him in her sleep.

That was the realization that dawned on Sasuke one night, as he was kept awake by a mixture of insomnia and recurring nightmares, with the only solution being to lie on his back and try to ward off the painful thoughts by entertaining others.

Sakura was sound asleep beside him in their large bed, at least an arm's distance of wrinkled sheets and tangled blankets in between them.

She never touched him, and, somehow, he knew it was entirely intentional.

The Sakura he remembered was restless even while sleeping, always shifting, always turning, always prone to stealing a blanket. When they were genin, on the few occasions that they'd had to share a room, he'd almost always woken up with her touching him in the smallest of ways. He'd never been bothered by it, though; he'd known it was not a fan-girl directed move in any way, shape, or form. She was simply searching for warmth as she slept, and the only reason why she never looked for it in Naruto as well was because his loud snores kept any sane person away from him, even unconscious. It was in her nature. Who could blame him for thinking it was completely ridiculous that now, being his wife, sleeping in the same bed, and basically having every right to touch him, she never did?

A rational person, Sasuke was well aware that it could be due to the fact that she had grown and matured. Who was he to say this was not just another one of the ways in which she had changed? But, somehow, deep in his heart—and, at this hour of the night, right at the forefront of his mind—he knew that was not the case.

Sakura was an incredibly expressive person. She enjoyed physical contact and thrived on displays of affection, and he'd been able to see that, from the very beginning, in her every action, every single day: the way she hugged the dobe after he returned from a long mission; the way she had trained even Kakashi to follow her wordlessly when she tugged on his arm; the way her hands, glowing green, never ran only over his injuries, but also took the time to brush the hair away from his face and heal even the smallest scratch that marred his pale skin.

Ever since she married him, though, she seemed to have quietly reconsidered her small affections, all the tiny, thoughtful actions so characteristic of her persona, deliberately pushing them into a corner from where she would find it difficult—unnatural, even—to retrieve them in his presence. Now, she almost never touched him—not if she didn't have to or if he didn't initiate the action first, and he knew that was mainly because she'd finally understood how much he hated physical contact.

In the light of that particular piece of information, Sasuke had trouble understanding exactly why it bothered him that she never plastered her body to his in her sleep. Perhaps it was because of the frown that he sometimes found on her features, since the Uchiha very rarely had a full, uninterrupted night of sleep, and that he wished he could soothe. Perhaps it was because of the sight he would sometimes wake up to in the mornings: of her hugging a pillow tightly to her chest. Perhaps it was simply because it was yet another piece that didn't fit with the old puzzle he'd solved so long ago—the puzzle he'd appropriately given her name—another something that he'd discovered when he thought she was an open book that he'd already read a thousand times.

The fact remained—she never initiated any type of contact whatsoever anymore. She didn't hug him, not even when she was excited. She didn't kiss him, not even when he could see and even feel that she wished she could. She didn't dare take his hand on the occasions that they found themselves walking down the street side by side. She didn't initiate sex, ever.

And all of that, combined, bothered him. It bothered him especially to know that maybe there would be a time when she would want to be close to him, when she would want, perhaps even crave, to hug him or kiss him or touch him, and she wouldn't act on her feelings because she'd think he'd reject her—or, even worse, that he was the only one in their relationship that had the right to act on his.

A lot of people categorized him as insensitive or inattentive, but Sasuke could see the longing in her eyes, much more often than he'd want. It was there when she watched a ridiculous romantic movie by herself, because she never forced her company upon him; it was there when she saw a couple, young or old, being reunited at the hospital; it was there when she saw how Shikamaru, with all of his lazy attitude, treated his new girlfriend and her best friend, Ino.

And it bothered him. It ate at him on the inside, slowly, day by day, because Sasuke didn't want her to long for anything of what he could give her. He could hold her hand, because he didn't care what people thought or said. He could respond to her kisses, because the only reason why he hadn't that one time was because he'd been caught off guard. And he could definitely return her hugs when she was excited about the breakthrough she'd made in the hospital or the night out she'd planned with her friends, because it was when she was smiling and laughing and being entirely her bubbly self that he felt most at ease in her presence.

Sasuke wanted to give her what he could—everything that he could. But he'd never been good at giving when he wasn't asked. How out of character would it be for him to kiss her, suddenly and out of nowhere, or how awkward would it be for him to grab her hand simply because? He'd never had a girlfriend, not to mention a role model or a person whose advice he could ask for in matters regarding relationships, and the Uchiha simply wasn't that type of man. How could he know and how could he give her what she wanted if she never asked for anything, in the first place?

Gazing at her while he thought, a sudden urge overcame him, telling him to brush her pink hair away from where it had fallen in her face, covering one of her eyes—but his hand wouldn't budge. He willed it to, with all his might, but something held it back, something more powerful than him and all of his ambition—an impressive feat, considering that ambition was what had driven him through years and years of hard work; it was why he was there, it was why he was alive.

Turning his back to her in a sudden movement, he glared at the wall and wondered if he should simply let his anger melt into resignation. He couldn't even touch her when she was asleep. He couldn't even do something nice and only halfway tender when he didn't have to worry about her reaction. He'd never be able to treat her the way she deserved. Perhaps it would be better for both of them if he simply stopped trying.

The sound of a distressed whimper reached her ears and coaxed her out of unconsciousness. Years spent on the battlefield, hours sleeping under the starry night sky or slumbering on a hospital bed had trained her well, until the response was in her blood and she had no way of repressing it. Sakura no longer slept deeply, not even in her most exhausted states.

Upon opening her heavy eyes, she was met with a fuzzy view of the ceiling, which dispersed as soon as she turned her head. Even half asleep, she was not surprised to see where the sound had come from.

"Sasuke-kun…" His name was a whisper on her lips, just as pained as the next whimper that escaped his own.

Her green eyes softened at the same time that they deepened with hurt at the sight of him. He was trashing in his sleep again, the covers tangled around his hips, his dark hair matted against his forehead with perspiration.

He continued to have nightmares almost every night. Sometimes, she would be awakened by them. Other times, his torment would be too silent for her to hear—but she saw it in the way the sheets were cold in the early hours of morning, in the haunted look in his eyes as he sat at the breakfast table, or the tiredness in his bones as he returned from his earliest training sessions. He was constantly battling his past and his inner demons, and as much as he tried to be strong—and managed; he managed to perfectly it physically pained her to witness it—she was afraid that he would soon crumble.

And the worst part of the problem was not even that—it was about time that he crumbled, she believed; every person had their breaking point, and in her opinion, he had long since passed his. The worst part was knowing that he wouldn't allow her near him when that happened. He wouldn't let her stay by his side. He wouldn't accept her help with his recovery. No. Sasuke would crumble, piece himself back together to the best of his ability, and dutifully return to his place in the painful cycle that had been his life ever since he was left alone as a child. The worst part was knowing that nothing would truly change with their marriage; that the many opportunities to help and support him that she'd thought would arise at every step while living under the same roof would actually never become reality. He would never accept her help and he would never let her in.

And, more often than not, Sakura was unsure of what hurt most: the suddenness with which the last of her illusions were crushed, or the thought of how much Sasuke had to be suffering in the midst of his loneliness and how much he had to have suffered, well beyond what she could imagine, in order to become unable and so unwilling to ever open up to another person again, no matter how warm and kind they were to him.

Pushing back her tears, having learned, after years and years, that crying helped no one but herself—and, even that, only in very specific circumstances—Sakura turned on her side and reached out towards him. The tips of her fingers brushed gently against his cheek, climbing tenderly up to his forehead. In a soothing caress, she brushed the locks of damp hair away, burying her hand into his dark mane.

She didn't make a noise. She didn't whisper a word. She simply ran her fingers through his hair in the most relaxing pattern she could manage.

When he stirred, she froze. But when she realized that had only been a product of his nightmare, she reopened her eyes and resumed the movement of her hand.

Sasuke had been perfectly clear that night, when he pushed her away—deliberately and in a way that would have been almost cruel, had she not known that he was hurt and acting not unlike a cornered animal, striking before it was struck. He didn't want her there, in his past, in his mind, in his feelings, or in his heart. And, as excruciating as it was, Sakura wouldn't force her way in—even if those were the only places she'd always wanted to be.

That was how she spent the nights when he had nightmares: brushing her fingers through his hair in an effort to soothe him. It was what worked best, she had come to realise over time, what quieted him down the most. It was as if he could feel that someone was there for him, as if, in his unconscious state, he would allow himself to do something he would never even consider with his guards up: he would lean into her presence; he would give in and show weakness; he would seek her touch and prove that he enjoyed her caress; he would cling to it exactly as one would cling to a lifeline, holding tight until the monsters were chased away and he fell into a deep, even sleep.

It splintered her heart into even tinier pieces to know that she could help him, that she would be able to make even the smallest of differences, if only he gave her the opportunity. It literally killed her to know that he still didn't see her as good enough, still didn't consider her to be worthy—worthy of a chance, worthy of him leaving a door open for her to slip through. She would never hurt him, and she believed she'd proved that, over and over again, at least a million times since they first met. Naruto would hit him, yell at him, shake him until he responded. Kakashi would present him with adequate advice regardless of whether he wanted to hear it or not, regardless of whether it hurt him or did him well. Sakura would always walk on eggshells with him, doing everything in her power to accommodate him, to make sure he was comfortable; his well-being would always be her first priority—and yet, somehow, that hadn't mattered in the past, and it didn't matter now.

But the pink-haired woman swallowed down her bitter thoughts, the disappointment and the heartbreak, and she swallowed down her tears. She didn't need any of them. The only way to keep strong was by avoiding them, by smiling and pretending nothing was wrong, that she wasn't making a tremendous effort to hold herself together every time her eyes fell on his trashing, unconscious form, that she wasn't so wounded on the inside that she was practically bleeding; the only way to keep on going was by remaining silent, by not sharing opinions he didn't care to know or stories he didn't want to hear, by not prying into his life and by leaving him as alone as he consciously wanted to be. And if that was the only way, then she would take it—and she wouldn't regret a single second of her journey, as long as it was spent by his side.

That was the reason why, when he finally calmed down and she felt her own eyelids beginning to drop with exhaustion, Sakura was careful to remove her hand from his hair and turn her back to him, the only evidence that she had ever reached out for him during the night being the dent left in the pillow between them—but, even that, would be gone by the time the morning light broke over the horizon.

Sasuke stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his pants, adopting his signature pose as he walked up the stairs that led to the entrance of the hospital, the automatic doors sliding open to let him through as soon as they detected his presence.

He had only just returned from a week long mission and, after reporting to the Hokage, was sent on his way out of her office—though not home, as he had expected and, quite honestly, been looking forward to. Instead, Tsunade had ordered him to head over to the hospital and pick up his wife, who, apparently, had been there for much longer than any medic should have.

Somehow, the news failed to surprise him. Sakura led such a busy, hectic life that he sometimes wondered how she managed to juggle it all, and although she usually made sure to be home to greet him whenever he returned from a mission, he knew it wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last time she would lose herself in her work, be that in the surgery ward, in the laboratory, or in a recovering patient's room. It was simply the way she was, and it had been surprisingly easily for him to accept that.

Already knowing where her office was located, he didn't bother to stop and ask for her whereabouts, deciding that he would wait for her if she was busy. He wasn't tired, seeing as his mission had turned out to be unusually pleasant. Solo and A-ranked, it had consisted of him retrieving an important scroll, whose contents the Hokage had refused to reveal. The first half had been packed with action and had filled his blood with the type of clean, addictive adrenaline that a shinobi of his rank felt so rarely without it being tinted with fear or anger or another bothersome emotion; it was the type of adrenaline he hadn't had the chance to treat himself to in a very long time, and he had relished the opportunity. Then, after he had completed the given task, he had enjoyed quite a nice trip home, with no paranoia, no unexpected ambushes—just him, the fresh, early summer air, and an inn he happened to stumble across halfway to Konoha, just as the sky was darkening with the impending nightfall, where he'd had possibly the best rest in years. He knew why, though; he'd been tired, and it had been more of an unconscious state than a proper, fitful sleep, but for Sasuke, that was much better than a night riddled with nightmares.

Reaching the third floor, he concluded that, if there was something annoying about his current situation, that was the fact that he was hungry—so hungry, in fact, that he would even settle for ramen. Sighing as he came to a stop at his destination, he reached for the knob, only to find that the door was already open, left ajar by the last person to walk in. Pleased with the knowledge that his wife was actually inside, and not somewhere in the middle of a five hour surgery, he was about to step inside when voices reached his curious ears.

"So, what are you wearing tomorrow at the festival?" He recognized Ino's high timbre.

"Oh, I'm not going," his wife answered, and he could imagine her waving her hand in a gesture of dismissal.

"What?" the blonde asked, sounding equally surprised as she sounded indignant, and Sasuke had a moment to wonder about her reaction before he received his answer.

"Yeah. I asked Sasuke-kun and he said he doesn't want to go, so I think I'll stay in, too. Get some rest." A deep sigh escaped her lips. "It's been hectic around here lately, anyway."

"But—but Sakura!" Ino stumbled over her words. "I can't believe that jerk denied you! Doesn't he know how important these festivals are to you?"

"He didn't deny me, Ino," Sakura said in the same voice she used when she was rolling her eyes. "I asked him if he wanted to go and he answered honestly. We're not tied together, I could go without him. But it's not that important."

"Of course it is! You used to go every year with your parents! It was a family tradition! You don't break tradition!"

Sakura laughed softly. "It's fine, Ino. It really is. Besides, maybe it's better this way. Maybe it would be too painful to be there without them…"

Sasuke frowned. What was true, Sakura had presented him with a question the day before he left on his mission: would he want to accompany her to the summer festival if he made it back to the village in time? He'd known what she was asking: a night out with their friends, a stroll through the lively, themely decorated streets, perhaps a game and a bit of food. It wasn't his definition of a fun, relaxing evening, so he hadn't bothered to even consider it properly; he'd answered quickly and negatively, and she hadn't pushed. She'd smiled, prodded a little by stating that she thought it would be fun, to which he ended the conversation for good by blurting out his uncensored opinion of festivals: they were stupid and, most of the times, pointless. She'd shrugged, smiled, and turned to leave for her shift at the hospital.

Standing there, right outside her door, his ears ringing with the most recent conversation between her and whom he knew to be her best friend, he had to wonder if perhaps he hadn't been too rash in dismissing her offer; he had to wonder if perhaps he'd failed to notice a hint of vulnerability in her voice or a flash of supplication her eyes. He was sure he hadn't. He may not seem to be that type of person, but he paid attention.

Which could mean one of two things: either Ino was exaggerating, or his wife was, once again, hiding her true emotions. And, as much as it disconcerted him, Sasuke had a feeling there was no need for him to dig deeper; he already knew the answer to that question.

Ino left after a couple of more minutes of mindless chatter, presenting Sasuke with the perfect opportunity to make his appearance.

Sakura was as shocked to see him standing in her doorway as she had been the last time, when he came to ask her the question that had changed the course of her entire life. Green eyes wide as she stood behind her desk, she seemed to immediately come to the conclusion that something was wrong.

"Sasuke-kun," she said, alarmed. "What—"

"Tsunade told me you were still here," he interrupted as means of an explanation.

She visibly relaxed, the tension in her expression replaced with surprise. "Oh. You came to pick me up?"

His only answer was a grunt, but it was enough to make her smile.

"Thank you, Sasuke-kun," she said, walking around her desk to hang her white coat on the coat rack across the room. "I'll be ready in a minute."

She disappeared inside the bathroom, and after a few seconds, came out wearing a black skirt and a flowery blouse. Releasing her hair from her ponytail only to pin it back up in a loose bun, she slung a small bag over her shoulder and grabbed a stack of papers, before turning to face him with another smile.

Sasuke made it a block from the hospital before he opened his mouth to confront her about what he'd heard.

"Why didn't you tell me it was so important for you to go to the festival?"

Sakura blinked, looking up at him curiously from where she walked alongside him. "You heard my conversation with Ino?"

He didn't give her an answer, but she didn't need one in order to reach a conclusion.

She surprised him yet again when she laughed lightly. "Never listen to what Ino says. She's smart and intuitive and all that you want, but she's way too dramatic for her own good. I used to go with my parents to the festival. It was nice, something to look forward to." She shrugged sadly, facing the road with an expression that tugged at Sasuke's heart a bit harder than he was comfortable with. "But they're gone now. I asked you because… well, it was logical. That's what you do, right? When there's something going on, you ask people if they want to go see." She smiled. "It's fine. I'll stay in… relax for a bit. Kami knows I need it."

There was a long moment of silence.

Sasuke stuck his hands in his pockets. "…You don't want to go with the dobe?"

"No," she answered with a shake of her head. "I think—and hope, because you never know with him—that he's taking Hinata. They deserve some time alone."

The Uchiha swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat without him realizing or knowing what its purpose was, because he could hear the words that hang, unspoken, in the air between them: what about us? Naruto and Hinata were dating and they would have their time alone, and what about the two of them? When was the last time they had done something together, something other than eating at the same table or sleeping in the same bed? Had there ever been such a time? For the life of him, he couldn't come up with a single memory—and he hoped, for the first time and with all his might, that it was because he couldn't remember, and not because it had never happened.

"So, what would you like to eat for dinner tonight?" Sakura asked, drawing his attention back to her brilliant smile. "Long missions are a pain when it comes to good food. What did you miss the most?"

You. The word popped into his mind with a speed and a clarity that surprised him almost more than its meaning. For a moment, he was half sure he had spoken it out loud—and he wondered why it was that it hardly bothered him at all; it should have been awkward, but instead, it felt right.

It was another moment before he realized he had not, in fact, said anything.

Sakura was staring up at him in an expectant manner, and he pushed all thoughts related to that unspoken word to the back of his mind. There was no point in dwelling over something that had never even existed, after all.

He shrugged. Despite what she thought, it was not food that had been on his mind during his mission.

The following day, the young Uchiha had a change of heart—and along with that, he also changed his mind.

He found her easily, almost without any effort at all, in the living room. Curled up on the couch with a blanket thrown over her legs, a book in her hand, and a cup of steaming tea on the coffee table, she seemed to be doing the exact same thing she had told him she would: relaxing. She didn't even notice his presence at first, too engrossed in the reality of her lecture—which, he immediately noted, was not a medical tome.

"Come on," he commanded, in a tone that sounded more annoyed than he was actually feeling, capturing her attention.

The warm, late sunlight streaming in from the large bay windows shone right behind her as she raised her head to look at him in confusion, creating shadows on her creamy skin and a bright pink halo around her head. For a moment—for the brief delay until she blinked again—he was lost in her green eyes and in the way they sparkled so beautifully. Then he recognized the baffled expression on her face, saw the furrow in her brows, realized that she had asked him a question—and snapped himself out of his daze.

"Sasuke-kun?" she asked, her voice tender and soothing, as she straightened her spine and set her book down on her lap, giving him her full, undivided attention. As usual.

Suddenly angry—unsure of whom his anger was even directed at, her for being so disarming, or himself for allowing her to be—he clenched his hands into fists and nearly growled, "Let's go."

Sakura's frown deepened. She'd told him of her plan to stay in and relax, and she didn't recall him making any changes or even adding a single comment to it. Opening her mouth, she was about to speak, but he beat her to the punch, even more annoyed that he had to explain himself fully.

"We're going to the damn festival," he snapped. "Do you want to see it or what?"

Her eyes widened. A second passed while she slowly processed the information—before the excitement came. "Really?" she asked, green eyes glittering even more, and Sasuke thought it was pretty obvious, how she was trying to tone down her emotions.

"Yes," he snapped.

"Thank you, Sasuke-kun!" she nearly squealed, and in one swift movement, stood, knocked the book to the side, slung the blanket over the back of the couch, and almost tripped over her own feet. For a moment, he thought she would throw herself onto him and positively attack him with one of her confusing bear hugs, much too big and warm for such a small person. But either it never actually crossed her mind, or she suppressed the reaction, simply brushing past him in a jump. "I'll be ready in a minute!"

The night before, Sasuke had been unable to sleep—quite surprisingly, not because of his recurring nightmares, but because his mind point blank refused to shut down; a lot of thoughts crossed it, sending signals back and forth, making him feel irritated and restless. And, in the midst of them all, he came to an unsettling conclusion: he realized that, in all honesty, despite what he had said, promised, and swore, he hadn't been a good husband to Sakura.

He was never home. He was always annoyed. He never spent any quality time with her. He picked a fight at every chance he had. Every time she tried to help, to comfort, to be there for him, he snapped, pushed her away, and claimed that she was prying—even though, sometimes, that wasn't even truly the way he felt; sometimes, he would readily admit the fact that there were things that perhaps she should know, as his wife, as his comrade, as the woman he had agreed to spend the rest of his life with; sometimes, he would readily admit the fact that there were things he would actually want her to know, things that he would want to open his mouth and tell her about. But instead of that, instead of any of that, he chose to hurt her. He chose to push her further and further out of his life, until she reached a point where she was too scared, pained, and apprehensive, to try to push her way in again. He had no patience for her. He had no time for her. Apparently, he had nothing for her.

And since Sakura never really had any demands of her own, either, and since she never showed herself upset or bothered by any of his insensitive actions, something he couldn't help but blame her for, how could he prove to her that he was sorry? How could he prove to her that he hadn't meant what he'd done, whatever that had been in the situation in question? How could he make her understand that most of his reactions were part of a defense mechanism that he had built into himself so securely that he found it hard to pick it apart and destroy it? How could he let her know that none of it was her fault—that she truly was, without a doubt, the best thing that had happened to him? Because, yes, despite popular belief, Sasuke was aware of that.

Sakura was the single constant presence in his life in a long, long time. She made him food. She waited up for him when he was due back from missions. She healed his serious wounds and the superficial bruises and scratches Naruto inflicted on him during their rough training sessions. She never complained. She always smiled. And, the fact remained, she never asked for anything; she was always, always pleased with whatever little he spared her way. She hadn't even asked for this. It had been an innocent offer, and it had occurred to him, as he laid on his side and watched the curtains move slightly with the warm wind blowing in from outside, that the reason why she'd phrased it so offhandedly was because she'd known, deep inside her heart, that he would reject it. He had, as expected, but because she hadn't put herself out there completely, perhaps, it hadn't hurt as much.

One would claim that the fact that he hadn't hurt her as much as he used to or as much as he did on a daily basis was progress. But it wasn't—not really. Because the change hadn't come from him; it had come from her. She had been the one to change. She had been the one to retreat into herself, to adjust her demeanor and her expressiveness so that she could both protect herself from him and, a reason that was always, always at the top of her list of priorities, adjust herself better to him—so that his life could be better and more peaceful.

He'd never hated himself more than in the moment he reached that conclusion the night before—and he resolved, yet again, to change that, and while he was at it, not to mess up anything else in the process.

The festival was everything that Sasuke expected, and everything that he loathed. It was loud, it was crowded, it was messy, and he found absolutely no enjoyment in pushing past hoards of people with not even a clear destination in mind. He had food at home. He hated games. He had no friends to meet up with, and if he had and had wanted, he would have definitely chosen someplace quiet and private instead; with all the noise around them, it was impossible to hear even his own thoughts.

Sakura, on the other hand… She was incredibly happy. Alert as she was taking everything in, from the sights to the smells to the small snippets of conversation that reached their ears, her eyes were positively dancing, and a wide smile was playing on her lips.

Glancing at her from the corner of his eyes, he still remembered how she stumbled into the hallway, wearing only one red shoe—and how his heart had stopped beating at the sight of her.

She was dressed in a nearly all-black, one-shouldered dress that brought out her tiny waist and brushed her mid-thighs. Her pink locks were piled messily on top of her head, in that stylish manner that she seemed to become more and more fond of as time passed and her hair grew past the point where it could be controlled easily, and her lips were tainted red—the same red that adorned her shoes, he had noted as soon as he looked down.

"Alright, so that was a bit longer than a minute!" she had announced, smiling, resting one hand on the wall as she bent down to slide her other high-heel on. "I'm sorry! But I'm ready to go now!"

For the second time that day, he had been a bit too dumbfounded to complain and tell her that she had actually taken ten minutes, and not only 'a little bit longer'.

A crowd passed them again, and Sasuke almost groaned out loud as, not for the first time, his wife lagged behind. As well as she could maneuver herself in her high-heels, they slowed her down; her small height didn't help much, and nor did the fact that nearly everybody seemed to know her and wanted to stop for a greeting and a nice chit-chat.

Stopping for a moment to give her time to catch up, he resisted the urge to shake his head at her ridiculously bright smile, and took the lead again, unconsciously heading towards the less populated areas. Sakura didn't complain—didn't, actually, seem to mind at all—as she followed him, though lingering every once in a while to greet a person or a group.

After what had to be the fifteenth time that happened, Sasuke lost his patience.

With a quiet growl aimed at an impeding hoard of people—who didn't hear him and, regardless, seemed to be having too much fun to have cared, even if they had—the Uchiha, determined not to have to stop again, reached behind him and grabbed his wife's hand. He heard her gasp as clearly as he would have if it had been whispered in his own ear in a silent room with only the two of them around, sensed her tension and saw her stumble lightly over her own feet.

He ignored all of her reactions.

A moment passed before she seemed to recover from her shock and he felt her fingers gently wrap around his—and then, all of a sudden, it became difficult to ignore his own reactions: the way his heart sped up, the way the blood seemed to rush faster through his veins; the way he became almost nervous, before the feeling vanished as quickly as it had come and was replaced by a calm so soothing he felt everything was alright in the world and in his life and nothing and no one could possibly ruin that for him.

He never did let go of her hand. They cut through the busy marketplace and escaped the crowds into the peaceful section of the main park, away from the food, games, and other attractions that had lured everybody else out of their houses. He didn't mind the contact enough to reject it, he found. Her hand was small in his—small, soft, and delicate, so unlike what one would expect in a ninja—but its weight was reassuring, and its warmth even more so.

A mere minute into their linked journey, and Sasuke thought he finally understood—why people enjoyed holding hands. He understood the feeling of security and comfort that came with the little action. He understood, in hindsight, how one could walk alongside someone and still feel completely alone. He understood how the most delicate of contacts made in the right circumstances could warm one's entire being to the core. Most of all, though, he understood how one could feel so much pride in relation to the person they had beside them—and he was not talking about the pride he had in Sakura, for all that she had accomplished and the manner in which she would most definitely continue to grow; he was talking about the pride he had in himself, for having her in his life, even though he was well-aware of the fact that he had done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

Glancing to his right, he caught her gaze. Her eyes were sparking, and the smile on her lips was so brilliant and so genuine that he almost found himself unconsciously returning it. Any lingering awkwardness that he might have felt the moment the crowd thinned and holding her hand became no longer necessary dissipated at the sight of that expression, and, for the first time in a very long time, Sasuke pushed both his pride and his big ego aside and did something that he truly felt that he enjoyed with every fiber of his being.

That smile was worth everything, he convinced himself. It would have even been worth his discomfort, had there been such an emotion inside him, to begin with. And to think that it only took such small, meaningful actions to prompt it into existence.

If only such small actions were usually not so difficult to initiate… If only he could completely bury that prideful part of himself that was too afraid of failing somewhere deep, deep inside his mind where not even he could find it, not even if he wanted, so that he could be the man she deserved—a man willing and, more importantly, ready to take a chance for her, for himself, for them.

If only… Their life would undoubtedly be so much easier and so much more beautiful.

"Sakura!" a shrill voice cut through the peaceful atmosphere, breaking the spell of the late summer afternoon.

If only, Sasuke then decided, his wife wouldn't have such loud, uncontrollable friends.

"Sakura!" At the second call of her name, they both stopped and turned to see no one other than Ino running towards them in nothing other than her high-heeled shoes. The Uchiha noticed his wife blinking in near disbelief at the feat, before a blonde blob suddenly pounced on her with a hug, forcing her backwards, ripping her hand out of his and leaving him completely devoid of contact. "Sakura, Sakura, Sakura!"

Over the shoulder of her friend, Sakura's wide eyes met his. Sasuke grunted and buried his hands into his pockets, annoyed. He had no way of knowing what was wrong with Ino—other than the fact that she was infuriating and, in his humble opinion, quite stupid, as well—but if he were to be honest, it would be impossible for him to find a way to actually care less than he already did. She could be happy or she could be sad, she could have an important reason for interrupting his moment with Sakura or she could not—the fact remained, she had done it; she had burst through his bubble in one of the rare moments when he was feeling content and, dare he say it, perhaps even joyful. He wasn't about to forgive her for that.


"What is it, Ino?" the pinkette finally asked, pulling away so she could look at her best friend in the eye. She, herself, was unsure of whether the emotions propelling her erratic demeanor were positive or negative—although, with the way her blue eyes were dancing, she suspected it was, thankfully, the former. "What happened?"

She was right.

Ino bit her lip, bounced up and down once, and then squealed. "I'm getting married, Sakura!"

Her mouth nearly dropped open in surprise. "What?"

"Yes!" the blonde confirmed, with what could only be described as an enormous grin on her face. "I'm getting married! Shika proposed! Can you believe it?" If there were any lingering doubts, they were eradicated the moment the pink-haired woman noticed her engagement ring—a gorgeous piece of jewelry encrusted with diamonds and with the center stone of a blue identical to that of her friend's eyes.

"Oh my God," she gasped, taken completely by surprise. But she was only frozen for a moment; after that, she immediately pulled Ino back into a warm embrace, grinning from ear to ear and squeezing her eyes shut as she felt her return the gesture with the same amount of vigor. "I am so happy for you! You have no idea how happy I am!"

As he watched silently from the sideline, hands still in his pockets and a furrow between his brows, Sasuke's eyes softened.

"We need to meet for breakfast tomorrow! I will tell you everything! It was so romantic! I never thought Shika had it in him, I am so, so happy, Sakura! We have a wedding to plan—you have to help me choose my dress! You'll be my Maid of Honor! Oh my God, I've waited my entire life for this moment!"

Ino continued to prattle on excitedly and at a loud volume, and Sasuke almost pitied Shikamaru. Better said, he would have—but his mind wasn't in the right place for that. His mind was focused on Sakura. She was smiling so brightly, hugging her friend so tightly, listening to every single word she said and, he could see clearly, even growing excited alongside her.

Sasuke then realized something that shouldn't have come as a surprise—he realized that she was genuine, that every emotion that crossed her face was authentic and that every word that came out of her mouth was truthful. She was happy for her best friend. She was excited for her best friend. She was glad that she had a found a man who loved her as much as Shikamaru did, a man that loved her so much that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

Ino hadn't done that for her. Instead of being helpful and supportive, she'd made her upset; she'd thrown her happiness in her face and pointed out every single reason why it shouldn't exist. Sakura had never told him the circumstances or the details of their argument, but he wasn't stupid; he could figure it out by himself. Ino hadn't been there for her when she'd needed her, and yet Sakura was willing to look past that and do the complete opposite for her. In fact, the young Uchiha was sure that it hadn't even crossed her mind for it to be any different. She loved her friend, and she would stand by her no matter what. She had no resentment for what she'd done, even though it was something that had obviously hurt her so much at the time.

Perhaps it was that which had been holding their relationship together for so long—the fact that, no matter what he did, she forgave; no matter what he said, she didn't hold against him.

And the realization, coupled with the current context, nearly crushed him—because they would never be like that. Sakura would never speak of him like that. She would never run to her friend and gush over something that he had done. She would never bounce up and down with barely contained glee for something that he had said. She would never have a reason to be as happy as Ino currently was.

He could hold her hand all he wanted. He could spend more time at home. He could open his mouth to compliment her on her cooking. He could even fill the silence she was trying to maintain, for his sake, and ask how her day had been, for a change. And he was sure that she would appreciate all of that. He was sure that her smile would be brilliant and her eyes would be dancing. Those were, after all, monumental changes for him.

But Sakura deserved so much more. She deserved the entire world and, not for the first time, he realized that, no matter how hard he tried, as long as she was with him, there would always be a reason for her to be upset, there would always be something for her to cry about.

And it made his heart clench so tightly in his chest that it hurt almost as if he had been stabbed—because he would never be enough. She deserved better. She deserved so much better, and yet, she'd settled for him.

She'd settled for him and he'd let her.

And, even with all of his selfishness, Sasuke would readily admit, for the first time since their wedding: that was something that he should have never done.

Sasuke arrived home already annoyed that evening. Lately, that was often the case, and although he was hardly proud of it, there was little he could do to help or change it.

Without a doubt, ANBU was a perfect fit for him. It kept him in shape, it kept him on guard, it kept him connected. It gave him the long, draining missions he so desperately needed, missions far away from home and so dangerous they barely allowed a single errant, unwanted thought to filter through to his focused consciousness. Unfortunately, they alternated with equally long periods of inactivity—weeks of recovery; report writing; patrol duty; days after days in which he had nothing to do with his time. It made sense for a Jounin to be busier than an ANBU; after all, not every mission was S-ranked in a time of peace, and not every shinobi on the payroll was trustworthy enough to be assigned to intelligence gathering. Still, that didn't mean he was pleased with that.

It was patrol duty that he hated most. During his free days, he could train. He could beat up Naruto. He could even read a good book. He disposed of his time however he saw fit, and that was something that he'd learned very early on to appreciate. While on duty, he could do little else but slowly and surely lose his mind. Sometimes, the shifts were entertaining enough, with the occasional rogue ninja that headed too close to the border or the silly genin that challenged one another to ridiculous situations. Occasionally, Tsunade allowed him to tag along to one of her meetings with the new council, which were sometimes serious, others hilarious because she was either drunk or simply so hard-headed. They made his mind work, regardless. Sasuke enjoyed being well-informed, in close contact with everything that was happening, and he appreciated Tsunade's efforts of showing him that he was trusted again. It was a nice change, and one that he very much liked.

Other days, though, were dull and long and gave him so much time alone with his thoughts—entirely too much time, much more than he could afford.

That day had been one of them, so when he crossed the threshold to the living room to find his wife waiting for him on the couch, a veil of confusion was draped over him and his annoyance only heightened—and no one, he insisted, could possibly blame him for it.

Sakura smiled once she noticed his presence, sitting up and walking around the couch to reach him in the doorway.

His reaction was all wrong, and he knew it. Instead of having his mouth dropping open at the sight of her, he clung to his ill feelings and raised an eyebrow. She was dressed neatly in a simple purple dress with a lace bodice and a flowing skirt, with strappy high heels on her feet and a glossy smile on her lips. Her long hair tumbled past her shoulders, framing her face delicately.

"Hi," she greeted softly, coming to stand in front of him.

Sasuke clutched the hilt of his sword before suddenly loosening his hold, frustrated with her warm welcome and gentle smile—because he simply couldn't understand them, and he hated not understanding. After the day that he'd had, he didn't need more food for thought. What he needed was a rough training session to make him forget about every single thought.

"How was work?" she asked, innocently and without knowing, without realising. It served to aggravate him even more, that she couldn't tell his mood was a result of a difficult day, that she thought it was simply the way he was, that he needed no reason to act the way in that manner.

He gritted his teeth and demanded, "What is this, Sakura?"

Again, she smiled. In a sudden movement, she took his hands in her own; his first instinct was to pull away and he nearly paid heed to it, but he changed his mind at the very last moment, swayed by the way she looked up at him with loving green eyes.

"I made you dinner," she finally explained, and laughed lightly at the realization that her answer hadn't actually cleared up anything; she always made him dinner. "I wanted to tell you that I love you. You already know that, I'm sure. But it doesn't hurt to hear it again. And I also wanted to apologise—for all the times that I… failed to keep the promise I made you when you gave me this engagement ring. For all the times that I pried or annoyed you or… did things that I should have known would bother you. For all the times that maybe you needed me and I didn't know when or how to be there for you. I know I made mistakes, but… I promise you now, I will be better." Licking her lips, she hesitated, but reached up to touch his cheek. He was too shell-shocked by her unexpected confession to even acknowledge the impulse to lean into her warm touch. "It may take me a while, but, eventually, I will be what you need. I promise. I love you, and that will be more than enough."

With that, she stood on her tip toes and pressed her lips softly to his—the first and only kiss she had initiated in so long—softly, hesitantly, as though expecting a rejection, with a confidence that he could tell she did not entirely have, and yet, with a determination so characteristic of her persona, a determination that told him she had something to prove and that, no matter how afraid she was, she would go after it with all the strength contained in her small body, and that even if he pushed her away, she would still be satisfied that she'd done it.

Sasuke didn't push her away. How could he? Instead, he bent down to ease the connection, responding to the kiss, taking control and deepening it as one of his hands snaked around her waist and brought her closer, pressing her body to his.

Dinner was forgotten that night.

In the morning, he left the bed with a kiss on her warm cheek that she would never know had been pressed there, and followed his normal routine, meeting up with Naruto for training.

"What did you and Sakura-chan do for your anniversary yesterday, bastard?" the blond asked, and with his question, everything suddenly fell into place.

He thought about running home, then—for a split second, he considered returning to his place in bed, beside her.

But he knew it would already be too late. Sakura would be up and ready to go to the hospital—and besides, what would he tell her? Anniversaries and any other important dates meant very little to him; he barely remembered his own birthday and she was well aware of it.

It soon dawned on him that she'd had no expectations of the type whatsoever, in the first place. There hadn't been a single flash of surprise in her eyes when she realised he had no idea what she was on about, a single glimmer of remorse or disappointment or even hope that he would eventually be able to tell.

An entire year of being married to her had gone by and, finally, he seemed to have consciously learned something he'd always inherently known: that Haruno Sakura never did anything to receive something in return. That she thought and acted with her heart. And that, in a relationship with her, Sasuke was spared of putting anything at all on the table—she filled it by herself. Inwardly, that was one of the reasons why he was with her now. She was effortless. She would keep them afloat on her own.

"Ugh, never mind! Don't tell me! It was probably nasty, anyway!"

A point that had been made before in his mind was that she didn't need his effort or even his good intentions. And, not for the first time, but with a greater intensity now, he realised that it hurt—so much—that a girl that used to expect them, certain that they were inside him somewhere, now never did… and probably never would.

A/N: I have no words to apologise enough for the long wait! I know I said I would update this much, much quicker than I actually did, and I promise you that I did try! The truth is that I got swept up by new projects: first, a couple of one-shots that I hope to finish and post soon, and then by a new plot that I couldn't get out of my head no matter what I did. It doesn't quite fit with any of my fandoms, so I decided to create my own characters—which is crazy and more difficult than I thought it would be and (obviously) time consuming. I am really excited about this, though, so please bear with me?

Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this new chapter! I will work on Ghost next.

Love you all, and please review! :)