To say he feels uncomfortable is pretty much the understatement of the century.

With a sword in his hand, there is no enemy he can't slay. With his Sharingan, there is no jutsu that can't be copied, countered, and mastered in the spur of a moment. He is an archetype of what a shinobi should be: powerful, fearless, cool, collected, nearly invincible.

…but for some reason, and this had been true since they were children, none of that matters when dealing with Haruno Sakura.

Sasuke can freely admit that he doesn't understand her. On a certain level, he can; he knows she is fundamentally kind, no doubt the result of a happy family upbringing and a well-stocked reservoir of supportive friends. He knows she cares deeply about those around her, and would do anything in her power to protect them. But beyond that, he has no idea what drives her to do the things she does on a daily basis, and there is no jutsu for that: figuring a girl out.

Which leads him back to her parents' doorstep that evening, entirely out of his element and with no excuse.

Kizashi and Mebuki are clearly surprised to see him – no doubt his abrupt exit the night before is to blame – but he can't help but note that they seemed pleased that he is there. That is new to him, because while he'd won back the trust and respect of many of his shinobi and kunoichi peers, there are still hundreds of older-generation Konoha citizens who look upon him with suspicion. That is something he'd been prepared to deal with when he came back, but like their daughter, the Harunos confound him.

Admitting he needs help with Sakura is humiliating for a young man of his caliber, but even he can see that things can't continue on the way the were where she is concerned. They are friendly some of the time and other times, they fight like cats and dogs; he cares deeply for her but knows next to nothing about her, and he suspects the same is true for her; he'd lay his life down for her without blinking an eye but doesn't even know where she lives. There is tension mounting between them that is bound to snap any day, and even detached, aloof Sasuke knows that something has to be done to cool the electricity.

"Come on in, kid," says Kizashi with a warm smile, stepping aside to let Sasuke in. "We're having tea on the back porch."

"I'll get you some," Mebuki volunteers with a smile of her own. "Oolong okay? I know Sakura says you don't like sugar."

Surprised that she'd remember something as inconsequential as how he took his tea, Sasuke murmurs, "Right. Thanks."

His mind is made up. He is here. The only way he can fix things up with Sakura and win her friendship for real is to learn everything he can about her, and her parents are a veritable sieve of information. He needs to take a more active interest in her likes and dislikes, her habits and hobbies, the things that she values; she hasn't given up on him while he was running amok destroying himself for the last few years. The least he can do in return is evoke a little effort.

Kizashi leads him through the house and onto the back porch. It is small, the wood deck a little old and worse for wear. Immediately he surmises that they need a new coat of white paint on the banister, then he quietly marvels at what he'd bother to notice in the first place: it isn't a typical use of his gifted eyesight, that is for sure.

Still, it is a nice night. At Kizashi's invitation, he sits down on the stoop next to the old man and the pair of them wait for Mebuki to return with his tea in silence. Sasuke feels Kizashi's eyes boring into him but he pretends not to notice, instead focusing on why he is here in the first place to insulate himself against the growing discomfort.

"Here you go, sweetheart," says Mebuki a few minutes later, joining the two men out on the back porch with a piping hot cup of tea in her hands. Sasuke takes it from her with a nod of thanks and sits staring at the simmering liquid, the warmth soaking into his fingers and the spicy smell swimming in his nose. If this is how Sakura spent her nights as a child, no wonder she'd been so incomprehensibly happy. He can get to used to this.

"All right, kid," says Kizashi. "So. You're here because you pissed off our girl."

Bristling a little at his phrasing, Sasuke mutters, "I guess."

"Well it wouldn't be the first time."

His eyes narrow. They didn't need to remind him like that, did they?

"She's got a temper on her, that's for sure," Mebuki says dryly. "That's one thing to know about Haruno women, Sasuke, they'll love you like no other but they've got vicious tempers. But judging by the smirk on your face, you know that already."

Sasuke doesn't even realize he is smirking till she points it out to him. Quickly he hides his mouth by taking a sip of too-hot tea, spicy and exactly to his taste.

"You make her sound like a volcano, Mebuki-chan, our girl's not all that bad. So she gets a little hot every now and then."

Kizashi's poor wording does little more than remind Sasuke of the reason why he'd left yesterday in such a hurry. For some reason, the back of his neck heats up and he feels his cheeks warm.

"Well, Sasuke," says Mebuki, sitting down on Sasuke's other side, "why don't you tell us what happened."

"We were…sparring," he says slowly, measuring his words. "I said some things to her, she got upset. I was angry."

"At her?"

"Aa."

"Why?"

He hesitates. He isn't sure how to word the real reason, because he can't quite understand it himself, and Sasuke is a firm believer that one shouldn't speak unless they knew precisely what they are talking about. The fireflies that had once been enchanting in the yard are now nothing more than white noise that distract him from his thoughts, and he feels uncomfortably hot all of a sudden, recalling his anger from the day before.

"Does this have anything to do with why you left so suddenly yesterday?" Mebuki asks gently, her tone solicitous and so Sakura that Sasuke finds himself answering.

"I didn't realize she is dating," he confesses, and his stomach tightens at the admission. He sets down his teacup, half-empty on the step beneath him and folds his arms.

He keeps his eyes forward, watching a squirrel skirt its way up the cherry tree in the yard, but he senses Mebuki and Kizashi exchange a look between them. Sakura's mother speaks again.

"And it made you angry? Not knowing that?"

"…there's a lot I don't know about her."

There it is, as much of the truth as he can figure out without their assistance. He owes Sakura a lot for her continued loyalty and steady offer of friendship. How can they cultivate anything solid if she is still a stranger to him?

"Well, we happen to know Sakura pretty well," says Kizashi jovially, draping a heavy arm around Sasuke's shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the way he tenses up at the unexpected gesture. "You know, since she's our baby and all. So, you wanna know things about her? Ask away. We got all night."

Sasuke hesitates, then asks, "What's her favorite color?"

"Oh come on," Mebuki scoffs. "That's not really what you want to know."

"Blue," Kizashi volunteers mildly. "She likes blue."

"You didn't come here for superficial factoids about our daughter," Mebuki says firmly. "I'd say you know a lot more than you think about the silly, shallow little things like that. And you weren't upset yesterday because you don't know Sakura's favorite color, or her favorite food."

"Mebuki…"

"Quiet, dear, let's not beat around the bush. Sasuke you were upset because Sakura's seeing other boys, right? And you were jealous."

Jealous.

Jealous.

The word feels heavy and sickening as he lets it soak into his subconscious. He's been a fundamentally jealous person ever since he can remember – envious of his older brother in his childhood, envious of Naruto's ninja progress – but he's always managed to conceal that underneath some higher purpose.

But this, it feels like that same envy, only with the edges blurred. It isn't exactly the same, because nothing about Sakura fits into the mold he'd mandated for everyone else. She's broken all of his rules.

Is that what is so annoying about her? That he can't nail her down?

Without thinking, he starts talking.

"She says she loved me before I left," he murmurs, barely aware that her parents were even sitting next to him, let alone listening. "And I…held onto that. While I is…away. When I came back, she is different than I remembered. In a good way. But she never mentioned what she says that night, and she never told me she is dating."

"Did you ask?" Mebuki wants to know.

"No." I didn't think I had to.

"Is it that you thought she might wait for you?" It is Kizashi who speaks this time, and his voice is soft.

Sasuke clenches his jaw so hard it is beginning to hurt. What is the sense in denying it? He is being petty, he knows, but that doesn't make this anymore palatable. It almost feels like a virus, the way his stomach churns and his palms sweat at the prospect of Sakura being with somebody, anybody, besides him. She'd said she loved him, hadn't she? Did that mean nothing?

"Or…" Kizashi continues, "that you wanted her to?"

"She was never mine," Sasuke replies stiffly, almost arrogantly, a pathetic attempt to save face. "Her choices are her own. I knew what I was giving up when I left. I knew there'd be consequences."

A few moments pass in silence while Sasuke schools his features back into an expression of practiced detachment. He thoroughly resents what is coming out here: secrets he didn't even realize he'd been keeping. The subject of Sakura had been one that he'd always sort of…procrastinated. Yes, he knows that there is something about her that set her apart from everyone else, but it is something he always assumed he would have time to figure out later, when things calmed down in his life and started making sense again.

It is only now, after having two very unexpected conversations with two very unlikely people, that he is beginning to understand all the cloudiness and fog in his heart, what it all means. A friend did not get jealous at the idea of another friend going on a date, but here he is. And it is because 'friend' no longer describes Haruno Sakura…at least, not entirely. There is more there, more to her, and putting this off for as long as he had ended up costing him.

"They're not serious," Mebuki informs him, jerking him back to reality.

"Hn?"

"The dates she goes on with other boys. She isn't serious about any of them. At least not yet."

He says nothing, waiting for her to continue.

"She wouldn't want me telling you this, of course, but Sakura's merely…exploring her options. The war was especially hard on her, not to mention everything that happened before. Like everybody else, she's taking happiness however she can find it, whether it be early morning sparring with her teammates or letting a nice boy take her to a nice restaurant every now and again."

Sasuke can't help but picture it in his head. Sakura, tired after a long day of saving the entire village, smiling brightly at Inuzuka over dango, or that asshole Shiranui on a walk by the river. The churning in his stomach worsens, but Mebuki's testimony, that Sakura isn't seriously invested in any of the men she is dating, ignites something inside him that feels dangerously, scarily close to hope.

Maybe all is not lost.

"And do you know why Sakura sees other men?" Mebuki asks, placing a comforting hand on Sasuke's shoulder. "Because she doesn't know yet how special she is to you, that's one reason, of course. And the other…is they ask."

Sasuke blinks and looks over at her, confused. Mebuki is smiling, and the softness in her expression reminds him of Sakura in a way her overall appearance did not.

"Sakura was head over heels for you when she was a little girl," she explains. "And any small scrap of attention you threw her way was enough for her…but she's a woman now. She's grown and she's matured, and she won't settle these days for anything less than a man who will try. Because Sasuke-kun, she is worth the effort."

He hesitates, then blurts out what he's been thinking ever since Mebuki invited him over to dinner the night before. "Did she tell you what happened between us?"

The Harunos glance at each other but say nothing, which Sasuke takes as his cue to continue.

"You wouldn't be talking to me like this," he says darkly, "inviting me inside, giving me advice if you knew what I'd done to her."

"Sakura-chan hasn't told us everything, of course," Kizashi replies evenly. "She isn't the open book these days that she used to be, but we know the gist of it."

"Really." Sasuke scoffs a humorless laugh and is on his feet, upending his half-empty cup of tea in the process. "Then you know how she begged me to stay here when we were 13, and I knocked her out and left anyway."

"…"

"And when she tried to bring me back years later, I turned my sword on her."

"…"

"And when that didn't work, when she tried to kill me so I wouldn't hurt anyone else, I used Chidori…I would've killed her if Kakashi hadn't stopped me. I wanted to. At that moment there was nothing else in the world I wanted more than her dead. And you two just sit there and smile and try and help me out like none of that even happened? Do you have that little regard for your daughter, to try and clear the way for a murderer to get closer to her?"

He must have crossed the line, because in the next moment, Kizashi is on his feet, too. In his face there is none of the warmth and good humor he's possessed all along; there is an air of menace about him in the way his eyes narrow, his lips curl back into a sneer. He is taller than Sasuke, a decent feat, and despite the fact that Sasuke knows him to be no higher than genin rank, he suddenly suspects that the Haruno patriarch is more than capable of killing.

"If you think that we've been helping you to try and hurt her," Kizashi snarls, "then you're out of your mind."

Sasuke hesitates, only belatedly realizing that his hand has fallen to the hilt of his sword purely on reflex.

"Everything I do in this world is for my daughter," Kizashi goes on, advancing on Sasuke predatorily, forcing him to take a step backwards off the porch and into the backyard. "She's the most important person on the face of the earth to my wife and me, and there is nothing we wouldn't do to bring her happiness. And if I thought for one millisecond that she'd be happiest if I shoved a kunai down your throat, then I would do it. I'm a father before anything else, Sasuke-kun."

There is a pregnant pause and Sasuke wonders what his next move should be. Kizashi looks almost ready to kill him, and Mebuki, standing on the porch above them with her arms folded, doesn't look any more pleased with him than Kizashi did if her cold-eyed glare is any indication. Apparently he's gone too far in insinuating that the Harunos don't care about Sakura, but what other explanation is there? What other reason can they have for knowing his sordid history with Sakura and doing anything but chasing him away with pitchforks?

"And don't think there haven't been times in the past when I watched my daughter cry, that I haven't thought about ending your miserable life," Kizashi continues, still moving towards him and forcing him into a retreat. "And she'd hate me to tell you this, but…"

Suddenly he stops, and the anger is gone from his eyes. A smile, almost smug, twists his lips and restores some of the good nature Sasuke has come to associate with him.

"You're the only boy she's decided is worth her tears," he finishes.

Sasuke finally understands what they were trying to tell him. The other boys Sakura is dating, she hasn't cried over them. She hasn't devoted time and energy to them the way she has to him. And just because she isn't throwing herself at him anymore these days, just because she chooses to smile kindly and sincerely at him without any of the starry eyes or expectation, doesn't mean that her feelings for him have waned. It just means that she's finally realized what he should have known years ago:

That Haruno Sakura is the kind of girl you have to try for.

He can't continue like this, with falling back into old habits now that he is home. He can't rely on their old dynamic anymore because time has changed them; if he doesn't give Sakura the proper acknowledgment, then she will find it somewhere else. Girls like Sakura deserve more than whatever pitiful little he'd deigned to give her in the past. If he wanted her, something that is becoming startlingly more obvious with every passing second, he would have to make the effort.

"There will be expectations now," Kizashi says, folding his arms and adopting a stern expression that reminds him fiercely of his own father, Fugaku. "As for what happened in the past, that's what it is: past. And it's between the two of you. If Sakura-chan forgives you for what happened, then you'll hear no more on the subject from us."

"Mikoto-chan would never let me hear the end of it if I tried to keep you two apart," Mebuki chimes in, joining the men in the yard at last with a smirk on her thin lips. "So think of this as a clean slate. And try not to screw it up this time, honey. Your mother would never forgive you."

Sasuke is at a total loss for words. They are smiling at him again, all understanding and supportive. It is almost like they want this to work, the twisted, backwards notion of Sasuke-and-Sakura. He wonders what it is they see in him to have earned that kind of encouragement…or what Sakura must have told them about him.

Maybe, he realizes, it really is just because she's chosen him that makes him worth it. Even if he'll never deserve her.

"I can't promise I won't hurt her again," he mumbles. "I can't promise that so I won't. But I can promise that I'll…that I'll always try."

It is the best he can do. He has no experience in this and the only couple he'd had any real contact with – his parents – have been dead for ten years, and he doubts he and Sakura have much in common with Fugaku and Mikoto. With little to base this on, he is flying blind, and his nature is such that he is bound to do something that might hurt Sakura somewhere down the road. The Sharingan can't lend him insight on how to keep a woman happy, for as much as he wishes it would.

But trying…he can do that, at least. He has to. Sakura deserves that much from him.

His answer, pitiful to his own ears, seems to be exactly what the Harunos want to hear. Mebuki beams up at him and says, "Okay, then. You come by tomorrow night for dinner, then, all right? And bring Sakura."

Sasuke almost smirks at how backwards that is, but instead he offers something else, words he'd given their daughter years and years ago. Nowhere near enough, but as sincere as he can make them.

"Thank you."