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The Girl Who Waited by KuriQuinn

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Story notes: Chapter Rating: T

Disclaimer: This story utilises characters, situations and premises that are copyright Masashi Kishimoto, Shueisha, Shonen Jump and Viz media. No infringement on their respective copyrights pertaining to episodes, novelisations, comics or short stories is intended by KuriQuinn in any way, shape or form. This fan-oriented story is written solely for the author's own amusement and the entertainment of the fandom. It is not for profit. Any resemblance to real organisations, institutions, products or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All plot and Original Characters except for those introduced in the canon books, manga, video games, novelisations and anime, are the sole creation of KuriQuinn. (© KuriQuinn 2016”)

Warning: Spoilers for everything in Naruto (up to Chapter 700) Original Characters will be prefaced where extant, but please do not use without contacting the author for permission. Manako Inuzuka is the sole creation of KuriQuinn.

Canon-Compliance: This work is part of the Legacy of Fire series. It is as canon-compliant as is possible to be.

Beta Reader: Sakura's Unicorn

第1章

Eight-year-old Sakura Haruno hides behind the shoji door of the classroom, clutching an immaculately wrapped package to her chest. Her heart beats a frantic rhythm against her ribs, so loud that she worries even he can hear it inside the room. Sasuke Uchiha is a genius who already surpasses every other student at the Academy. Super-hearing would not be that unbelievable.

Her stomach flip-flops a little, and she would tighten her fingers around the large box if she didn't fear tearing the paper. The woman at the sweets stall did such a nice job wrapping it. Sakura didn't dare do it herself because she's all thumbs these days, and this gift has to be perfect. She saved her pocket money from a year's worth of chores to afford the finest box of chocolates they had. It's still not as nice as the one she saw last year in the fancy gourmet chocolate shop; her mother wouldn't let her buy it. Mama said it was a waste, and they don't have a lot of money as is. That's why Sakura had to save up this year. She wanted it to be extra special because she knows Sasuke's all alone now.

About seven months ago, he lost his entire family.

Sakura doesn't know the actual story of what happened to the Uchiha clan. Iruka-sensei mentioned something about a tragedy and she hears whispers from her parents when they don't know she's listening. And, of course, the rumours the other kids spread—some benign, others ridiculous, still others far too terrible to contemplate.

She doesn't care how it happened. All she knows is that Sasuke is on his own—he has no mother or father anymore, or even his big brother—and he must be lonely. And so, even though she isn't brave enough to confess her feelings, if she gives him a nice enough gift for Valentine's Day, he'll understand. He'll realise he's not alone and that people are thinking about him all the time.

And by people, she means herself.

If only she could muster the nerve to walk over and hand him the package.

Just do it! There's no one around, so no one will notice if I mess up! Shannaro!

"What've you got there, Sakura?" someone drawls behind her, making her wince at every syllable of her name.

Oh, no! Not fast enough!

Turning around, she comes face-to-face with Ino and at least three other girls from their class. All of them are holding their own closely guarded packages.

"You're not actually considering giving that to Sasuke, are you?" her former-friend derides, the curl of her lip suggesting Sakura has something decayed in her hands.

Sakura squares her shoulders and juts her chin out in defiance. "So what if I am? I don't see how it's any of your business."

"It is our business if you want to disgrace him with something as flashyas that," another girl interjects.

Someone else sniggers, "I saw that same package being sold at market."

"You got him store-boughtchocolate?" Ino mocks. "And here I thought you said you liked him."

"I-I do!" Sakura protests.

Ino smirks, crossing her arms with utter superiority. "You're such a dummy, Forehead. Everyone knows you only give store-bought chocolate to people you feel bad for." The other girls titter and Ino continues, "If you can't scrape together enough money to buy the best, like I did, you should've at least made it yourself."

Ino produces a beautifully wrapped, gilded package—it's the one that Sakura spied in the fancy chocolate shop! Her heart sinks as she inspects what the other girls are offering—clear, neat bento boxes containing painstakingly shaped bars of chocolate. A few are decorated with icing designs and swirls of ganache and, though they are clearly homemade, Sakura can just imagine the effort that went into creating them. Two of her classmates' eyes bag with exhaustion. Sakura' cheeks burn with embarrassment and she looks down at her feet. Her fingers tighten around the package.

"But if you really think you can buy someone's affections with second-rate candy, then go on," Ino continues loftily. "You can give him your gift first. We'll all wait, won't we, girls?"

There is open giggling at this, two of the girls elbowing each other conspiratorially, Ino's mocking smile never wavering. Sakura desperately wants to square her shoulders and stride into the classroom defiantly, to be the first person to give Sasuke a gift.

Yet the seeds of doubt have been sown.

What if he gets the impression that she isn't serious? That her feelings for him equate to a second-rate box of chocolates? It's bad enough that she couldn't afford to buy him the ones she wanted, but if even girls who have no chance with Sasuke slaved over homemade chocolate for him, he'll think she's joking.

She conjures the mental image of him opening the chocolates and tipping them over her head in front of the whole class.

No way! That can't happen!

She hesitates long enough for the group of girls to shuffle past her, crowding into the classroom. Right away, they become a gaggle of cooing, giggling admirers around Sasuke, each one vying to give him their chocolate first. Ino, of course, leads the bunch.

Sakura doesn't bother to watch if he accepts the gilded package. Instead, she lets the shoji slide closed and trudges down the hallway. As she passes a waste bin, she throws the chocolates away and doesn't look back.


第2章

The next year, Sakura spends the weeks before Valentine's Day slaving over homemade chocolate.

Her mother has been teaching her to cook, but Sakura isn't great at it. She's somewhat better with sweets, so by the end of several burnt batches, she has a half-dozen edible, not so horrible-looking pieces of chocolate. She even stays up late to decorate them and, the next morning, arrives to class exhausted but proud.

Once again, she lingers on the sidelines, watching the scene in nervous anticipation. Several girls (fewer than last year, but still a considerable number) offer Sasuke their coloured boxes and succulent-looking sweets. Ino is back with an expensive, golden package again, and it's perhaps more impressive than the one last year.

And yet, without fail, Sasuke ignores all of them.

He's more interested in gazing out the window, leaving each girl standing before his desk in awkward silence until another contender elbows her aside to try her luck.

If the other girls weren't her competition, Sakura might feel a little sorry for them all. She's nervous enough already—half-tempted to prove she's the one he'll accept a gift from, half-dreading receiving the same treatment.

She spends most of the morning trying to decide whether she should even try it. She barely perceives the drama in the background—the rest of the boys in the class sneakily divide the chocolates meant for Sasuke, while the girls who brought them squabble with each other. Kiba gets into an actual fistfight with Naruto, and that's when Iruka-sensei gets involved. It all ends with the class having to write an essay on the necessity of discipline in a shinobi's life. At least that's what she thinks that is the topic of the essay. She may or may not have gotten distracted watching Sasuke instead of paying attention.

By lunch break, she decides to risk it.

After all, love isn't supposed to be easy! And this will show him and everyone else that I'm going to fight for him, no matter what!

And, of course, wouldn't it be great if he accepts her gift instead of Ino's?

Those thoughts make her straighten up and follow Sasuke out of class when Iruka-sensei dismisses everyone. He shuffles down the hall, alone as usual, most of the other students giving him a wide berth.

"S-Sasuke, wait up!" she cries, cringing at how her words come out as more of a squeak. It's no wonder he keeps walking, disappearing around a corner and forcing her to run after him.

Sakura races around the corner and overtakes him, coming to a halting stop a few feet in front of him.

"Please wait," she says, breathless, face flushing with warmth. Staring down at the floor, she holds out her offering to him. "It's Valentine's Day and I-I want... I mean, I worked hard on these and it would... I was hoping you could accept my…my gift. For you."

She means to say feelings, but at the last second, her courage fails her. She thinks perhaps that will make it hurt less if he doesn't return the sentiment.

When nothing happens right away, she lifts her head and opens one eye.

Sasuke stares at her with aloof disinterest, which she takes as a good sign. He could've simply kept walking. Then he sighs—her heart lifts in hope—and scowls at her.

"You wasted your time," he tells her in a neutral tone. "I don't like sweets."

He does walk away now, hands in his pockets. Once again, Sakura stands by herself, clutching a box of chocolates to her chest. Her eyes water and her chest twinges painfully, her instinctual reaction to see this as rejection. Except...

Except, unlike with all the other girls, he spoke to her, instead of pretending she didn't exist. She's always wanted Sasuke to acknowledge her existence, and today—well, today, he did exactly that.

It's a step. Just one small step, but it's a start!

Sakura beams at his retreating back and decides that she'll get it right next time.


第3章

Sakura arrives a half-hour before any of the other students, carrying yet another plain, unfashionable bento box with determination. Inside, she has arranged six perfectly formed dark chocolate and chilli-spiced truffles. This year, she's sure she got it right.

Peering into the classroom, she is unsurprised to see that Sasuke is already there. He always arrives early though Sakura doesn't believe it's because he likes mornings. It must be so lonely at home for him without his family, herhaps, it's less painful to be here.

It is this notion which keeps her from hesitating.

She marches over to Sasuke and plants herself in front of him, back straight, trying to radiate the same confidence the heroines in her storybooks always have.

He's in his habitual position—hunched forward, chin perched on interlocked fingers, and eyes closed as if in meditation. Perhaps he's contemplating the universe. Sasuke is so deep like that. Sakura almost doesn't want to bother him.

Should I clear my throat or something? I don't want to startle him...

Not that she could because Sasuke expects everything. Doubtless, he knows she's there. But then, why doesn't he say something?

As if her thoughts trigger it, a furrow forms in his brow and his eyes shoot open, narrowing into his default expression of annoyance.

"Is there something you need?" he asks, his tone conveying undisguised exasperation—like she's tiring him out by just existing.

Sakura takes a half-step back, torn between hurt and frustration because would it kill him to be nice for once in his life?!

But then his gaze falls on the box in her hands and his face smooths into blankness. His eyes close again and his shoulders slump. She imagines she hears him mutter under his breath, "This again..."

Which makes her a little defensive because she did it different this year, shannaro!

"I know you said you don't like sweet things," she tells him quickly. "That's why you never accept Valentine's Day chocolate, right? I wouldn't either if people kept giving me stuff I didn't like. And...and not a lot of stores sell chocolate that isn't sugary, so I made this. I tried a few different recipes to make sure they didn't turn out sweet and I-I tasted them. And, well...I didn't like them—but not because they weren't good! I just don't like spicy stuff, but my mother said it's how they're supposed to be and—"

She clamps her mouth shut as she realises she's babbling. The whole time, Sasuke regards her stiffly, but for once, his expression isn't one of aloofness. She perceives confusion there, like he's trying to decide on something to say.

"You remembered I don't like sweets," he states, as if he hasn't heard the rest of it. She can't tell if he's puzzled or impressed. She chooses to believe the latter and puffs her chest out in pride.

"Well, I have a great memory," she boasts, fighting every natural inclination she possesses to look down at her feet. She's got his attention for once and she intends to revel in every second!

Those seconds turn out to be fleeting as his expression reverts to familiar annoyance and he stands. "I don't like chocolate at all," he tells her, heading up the stairs. "Give them to someone who does."

Sakura panics, staring at his back and conscious that she's about to lose her moment with him.

"Can I...can I ask why?" she blurts out. "I mean, it's such a strange thing, not liking sweets. Are you allergic?" An entirely possible scenario occurs to her. "Oh. Is that why you always say no? Because it makes you sick? If-if that's the case, you should tell everyone. No one wants you to get sick. D-definitely not me."

She notices his fists clenching, his shoulders tensing, and when he bites out, "I just don't like them," she can't help but shudder at the coldness.

Sasuke skips the rest of their lessons that day.

Sakura is careful not to mention to the other girls that he was there, or that she's the reason he left before they could shower him with more unwanted sweets. She spends the rest of Valentine's Day trying to figure out exactly where she went wrong.


第4章

Sakura has never been to the Uchiha district.

It's far away, on the outskirts of Konoha, and much older and creepier than other neighbourhoods. Some older kids say it's haunted by the ghosts of the dead Uchiha, which Sakura knows is nonsense. Most parents complain how the village should resettle the area, but no one ever does.

She wouldn't be here today, except...well, it could be her last chance to get this right.

In two months, she and the rest of their class will take their graduation exam. Once everyone becomes genin, they will be split into teams, and she probably won't get the chance to see Sasuke so often. He's at the top of the class, and if teams are formed based on class rank, she suspects she won't be in the running.

Shikamaru's a genius—she heard Iruka-sensei once say he could be the first of them to become a jōnin if he tried. And, despite Sakura's best efforts, all the other girls say Ino is the top female student in the class.

If this is my last chance, I will make it count this year!

She leaves her house at dawn, ignoring her bleary-eyed parents' queries as she grabs the container she bought from the market the evening before. Papa makes a bad joke about early birds and worms, Mama shakes her head knowingly, and Sakura is on her way.

Upon reaching the abandoned quarter, it doesn't take Sakura long to find Sasuke's house. It's the only place that looks like someone lives there, with the walkway swept of debris and the paint around the eaves renewed. She wonders if he did that himself, or if the Hokage sends someone from time to time.

She raps on the door a few times and waits, rocking nervously back and forth on her heels. It's early enough that he should still be here, and she doubts she's waking him. Still, after a full ten minutes with no answer, her hopes begin to fade.

Did I miss him after all?

Sakura considers the merits of bringing her gift with her to the Academy but decides against it. She came here to avoid the drama and attention that inevitably comes from giving Valentine's Day gifts in a classroom surrounded by the other contenders for Sasuke's heart. She could always leave it here with a card—but there are plenty of stray animals in Konoha that would make quick work of her offering.

I could always come back after school. Or would that be weird? He might think I'm following him around, and then—

"Sakura."

She shrieks in surprise, fumbling with the carton in her hands, miraculously managing not to drop it. Turning toward the road, she faces a tired-looking, sweaty Sasuke Uchiha. His clothes are scuffed with dirt, but his demeanour doesn't suggest someone who was just attacked.

I bet he was out training. Wow. He gets up early to train, and he's always first to class? That is dedication. Sasuke is so cool.

It's also not fair that he looks so good after a workout.

"What are you doing here?" he asks, not unkind necessarily, but not in a particularly welcoming way either.

"I just... I wanted to give you something," she blurts.

Sasuke exhales in annoyance at this. "I told you already, I don't like chocolate—"

"I know. I remember," she interrupts because he's already heading for his apartment! "I got you something you do like, so you can accept my gift."

"You're wasting your time," Sasuke says, reaching for his front door.

"N-no! Wait, Sasuke! Hold on. Don't shut the door on me yet, please?" she beseeches. "I want to... Here, look."

By some small miracle, he doesn't ignore her, but his imperious over-the-shoulder glance isn't exactly comforting. Not to be deterred, Sakura flounders a little with the box, but pries open the thin wooden lid to display its contents.

Two dozen shiny red cherry tomatoes gleam up at Sasuke in the morning sun.

"These are for you," she tells him needlessly. "I saw you a few weeks ago, shopping. I mean, it's not like I was following you or anything. I was with my—well, we were getting groceries. And it's weird to see someone our age shopping alone at the market that early in the morning, but then I realised it was you because...you know. Anyway, I thought I should get you something you'd actually like this year, and these aren't sweet at all! I tried a few to make sure. Oh, and I read that tomatoes have a lot of health benefits! There's vitamins and potassium, and they help bone growth which, I mean, if you're training as hard as I know you do, would be great, right?" She pauses, reviews everything she just said to make sure it's not too lame, and quickly adds, "And...and don't worry about giving me anything back, okay? I just wanted to give you something. This doesn't have to be a...a Valentine's Day gift."

Throughout her entire speech, Sasuke has slowly turned around to face her, staring down at the tomatoes like he's never seen such things before. His eyes inch toward her face, calculation there, as if she's something inexplicable—a bacterium that's decided to get chatty, perhaps.

He opens his mouth to say something—probably to reject her, so she braces herself for it. Then he closes his mouth, frowns thoughtfully, and exhales again. Except this time, it isn't in annoyance, but more like...resignation? Acceptance?

"...it's fine," he says in a stiff tone, the word sounding awkward and unfamiliar to her ears. Perhaps they feel even weirder for him to say, but she can't really think about the implications of that since her brain has stalled. Sasuke reaches out to take the carton from her outstretched hands.

She shakes herself out of her stunned joy and, bolstered by her success, boldly suggests, "I can wait for you to get cleaned up, if you want. Maybe...maybe we can walk to class together?"

She knows she's pushing it, but why waste the opportunity?

"No," he replies as he unlocks the door to his house.

The interior is too dark to get much of a clue to what is hidden within, but it smells heavily of a combination of cedarwood, incense, and tatami. It strikes her as an odd smell for someone's home—more suited to a temple interior than a living space. It possesses none of the comforting scents she's used to in her house.

Sasuke turns to face her, the tomato carton loosely cradled in the crook of his arm.

"I'm not going in today," he says. He considers her a further half-second then adds, "You should go, or you'll be late."

The door closes, once more putting an impenetrable barrier between them.

Sakura is surprised to find she doesn't mind this rebuff. In fact, it does nothing to destroy her bewildered giddiness. All the way out of the Uchiha district, she feels a strange disconnect, as if she's floating. Once across the small bridge that divides of from the rest of the village, the giddiness turns into fully formed joy and she laughs out loud.

"Shannaro!" she shouts at no one in particular, punching the air in triumph.

It's the first time he's ever accepted anything from her—perchance, even from anyone. The enormity of this moment is not lost on her, and she's sure she'll be coasting through the rest of the day on that.

As much as she wants to track down Ino and rub it in her face, the inner part of Sakura cautions her to keep this quiet.

This will be mine and Sasuke's secret.

And that makes it a hundred times better.


第5章

"Hey Sakura! Whatcha got in the bag? Huh? Huh? Huh?!"

"Naruto, if you don't get out of my face, I'm going to slug you!" she snaps, making a threatening fist at him. The orange-clad boy pre-emptively ducks, sticking out his tongue. Several feet away, she can almost hear Sasuke rolling his eyes.

"But I wanna know," Naruto complains. "Did you bring games? You should've brought something fun to do. Kakashi-sensei's taking forever."

"No, I didn't bring games," she tells him. She wonders why that idea hasn't occurred to her before now. Their instructor is always late, if he even shows up at all. A pack of cards or dice might be a good idea...

"Then what's in there?"

"You'll see when Kakashi-sensei gets here," Sakura retorts.

"But why not now?"

"Because I said so! We're waiting until—"

"I heard my name?"

There's a puff of smoke and, suddenly, Kakashi is leaning over them, disgustingly unbothered by his tardiness, as usual.

"You're late!" Sakura and Naruto chorus.

"Well, my horoscope said something unfortunate would happen to me if I took my usual route today, so—"

"Liar!"

"Can we get started?" Sasuke interrupts, unimpressed with Kakashi's excuses.

"In a minute," Naruto shoots back. "Sakura said she would open the bag, and I wanna see what's in it!"

"If you keep annoying me, you won't," she grumbles, but she's already undoing the ties and unfolding the cloth.

Two red-wrapped packages shine in the sunlight, and she passes them to Kakashi and Naruto. Not waiting to see their reactions, she reaches back into the bag and draws out a plain carton of tomatoes for Sasuke. She has, after all, learned her lesson.

Sasuke leans away from the tomatoes, as if he's expecting them to attack, but at her expectant look, he relents and reaches for them.

"Happy Valentine's Day!" she declares, beaming at them all and relishing in their varied expressions.

Kakashi looks as if he doesn't know what to say—she supposes it's been a long time since he got chocolate from anyone—while Naruto appears frozen. It occurs to her too late that today might be the first year anyone has given him anything on purpose. This suspicion is confirmed when he looks up at her, his eyes glassy.

"Sakura..."

"It's not a big deal," she hurries to say. "Ino gave all the guys on her squad gifts, so I figured I would do the same. I won't let her out-do me."

That's not entirely true. Things have been so tense since their team formed. Sasuke's is always cold and sulky, while Naruto has been more reckless than usual, hell-bent on surpassing rival. Which isn't easy since the only missions they get assigned amount to babysitting or yard work.

Or worse, rescuing cats.

She hopes this tiny gesture will make the temperamental men in her life feel a little better.

"Hah! Sakura must hate you, Sasuke. She gave you vegetables!"

"Or she wants me to live longer than you."

She winces. Or not.

"This is very thoughtful of you, Sakura," Kakashi tells her, tone softer than normal. Even though she can't see his face beneath that damned mask, she thinks he might be smiling at her. "I hope you receive some equally thoughtful gifts on White Day."

In her imagination, he's looking at Sasuke, who scoffs lightly and says, "If we're not going on a mission today, I'm going home."

This predictably leads into Naruto calling Sasuke names, Sakura trying to keep the peace, and Kakashi finally letting them know about whatever lame mission they've been assigned.

The fleeting moment of peace is broken, to be forgotten over the course of their day. Still, Sasuke brings the tomatoes home with him, and Sakura counts that as a victory—one of a meagre few.

Despite keeping her worries to herself, Sakura's performance on the team remains lacklustre. Sasuke snaps at her for making mistakes, Naruto won't stop making annoying requests for dates, and Kakashi doesn't even seem to notice her while he deals with the rivalry between the two boys. If being ignored while performing useless chores is what a ninja is all about, she wonders if maybe she's not meant to be there.

Perhaps that's why she's so surprised that one day in mid-March, Kakashi arrives at their usual meeting place with a box of white marshmallow animals and a casual "Happy White Day" greeting.

"Someone gave me these, but I don't like chewy sweets," he tells her with a shrug. "So here."

She would brush it off as coincidence if Naruto didn't hand her a package as well. It's clumsily wrapped with magazine covers and he sheepishly admits, "I forgot what day it was until yesterday."

Upon opening the package, she finds a much too large, much too frilly white lingerie set.

Kakashi chokes back either a laugh or a groan of dismay, and Sakura proceeds to beat her teammate into a human-shaped bruise for the inappropriateness of his gift. Still, inwardly she is grinning, because she has never received gifts on White Day from anyone.

Sasuke offers her nothing; this isn't a surprise. Another girl might be upset that he's the only one who doesn't bother with a gift, but she's used to this. Sasuke isn't the type of person to give gifts to anyone, and after all these years, she finally understands that. But when Sakura glances up, his right eye is twitching as he stairs at the frilly material and she thinks, if she didn't punch Naruto first, Sasuke might have. The idea makes her feel a little giddy because it suggests he cares about her honour.

A bit.

Ish.

Who cares? I'll take it!

That any of them agreed to make such a silly day as White Day special for her has her beaming the whole morning. Training is even pleasant and her teammates don't bicker with each other. Everything is going well, even though the only mission Lady Tsunade has for them is scrubbing graffiti off the back of the movie theatre. This goes by fast because Naruto is an expert at cleaning spray paint off walls.

The three of them are just heading to Hokage Tower to check in when they meet Konohamaru, tripping over his long scarf, knees scuffed and nose runny. It's not an entirely uncommon sight, since he's always following Naruto around after training, but the large bouquet he holds out to Sakura is somewhat of a surprise.

"It's for you, Big Sis," he declares with a grin, holding out a bouquet of white freesias and primroses. "Happy White Day!"

Sakura feels a muscle in her temple twitch as she decodes the meaning of the flowers—desperate, childish and immature—instantly knowing it was Ino that put the bouquet together for him. But Konohamaru looks so proud of himself, that she takes the flowers with a smile. Besides, no one has ever bought her flowers before.

"These are beautiful," she tells him, and it's not a lie because aside from their meaning, the blossoms themselves are pretty.

"I saw my uncle give some to his girlfriend today, and she was really happy about it. And I figured Big Bro would forget to give you any even though you're his girl, so really, they're from him."

This time Sakura smile is strained, and she says, "Let's just stick to them being from you, okay?"

Konohamaru chuckles nervously, and Naruto makes an insulted noise.

"Are you saying you wouldn't take flowers from me?" he demands, and then turns to Sasuke. "Some people are so picky."

Sasuke crosses his arms. "Who cares? They're just going to die."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sakura asks before she can stop herself, clutching the flowers.

Sasuke shrugs and continues walking. "You're impressed by useless things. If people intend to observe ridiculous holidays, the least they could do is give you something useful."

"Hey, it's not ridiculous!" Naruto protests. "At least we got her something, asshole."

"Whatever."

"It's okay, guys," Sakura mumbles, trying to diffuse the situation.

"No way, he's being a spoilsport!" Konohamaru cries, and glares at Sasuke's back. He holds out his balled up fists and yells, "Come back and say that to my face! I'll fight you!"

"No, no! Don't do that," Sakura says quickly, imagining Sasuke setting the younger boy on fire. She doesn't want him to be arrested for treason or something. "It would spoil the day. And really, I like the flowers. I'll put them in water the minute I get home, okay?"

Although Konohamaru is placated, when she looks up, Sasuke is already down the street with Naruto glowering at his retreating back.

"He seriously needs to unpucker," Naruto grumbles.

Sakura sighs and mourns yet another day ruined by whatever's going on with Sasuke.

When she gets home, her mother admires the bouquet. She suggests inviting whoever gave them to her over to dinner, and Sakura is properly mortified as she explains it was just some little kid, and her father makes jokes about having to beat away the boys with a stick. Sakura grumbles at them both and heads upstairs to fall face-first onto her bed.

For several long, blissful moments, she exists in perfect peace, nothing but the light breeze teasing at her hair. She is exhausted, utterly drained, and if she's being honest, a little hurt, too. It's sometimes hard to care about someone unwilling to open up. Not that she blames Sasuke. Having your entire family murdered isn't really an easy thing to discuss with just anyone.

But

She still wishes Sasuke would let her in. One day he will, she knows, but in the meantime, pretending that his constant rebuffs and caustic remarks don't bother her is becoming a chore.

A shiver creeps up her spine and Sakura frowns. Her room is draughty from the open window, a fact that's confusing—she never leaves her windows open when she leaves the house. With a muffled groan, she pushes herself up and crosses the room to close it, only to pause at the sight of something sitting on the window sill. A plain, flat, white box—not very large, and she sees no ink or seals on it to suggest it might be dangerous.

But there's no note attached to explain its presence.

Half-suspicious, half-curious, she lifts the thin lid on the box. Her breath catches in her throat.

A pair of black gloves are nestled neatly inside the container. They are thick, of high-quality leather, and clearly well-made. Upon trying one on, she discovers that they are bigger than her hand—obviously made for a woman. She'll grow into them, one day.

She can't figure out who left these for her or why. They'll be useful, though, to protect her hands from any stray blades or even during sparring sessions.

As she pulls the glove off, an oddly familiar scent blows toward her on the breeze—cedar, incense, and tatami. It takes a second to place the scent, and when she does, her cheeks flush with warmth.

"Next time," she promises herself out loud, holding the gloves close to her heart. Her birthday is in two weeks, and if she plays her cards right, she can talk him into going on a date with her.

Only I'll call it training instead of a date because I think that word makes him nervous. But if we happen to stop by somewhere to eat on the way home, that wouldn't be horrible, would it?

And what if it's the beginning of a regular thing? What if they start dating, and then by next Valentine's Day, they even spend it together?

She squeals and jumps on her bed, kicking her feet in excitement.

Sakura spends the rest of the night planning it all out in her head. She never dreams of the possibility that they will be stuck in the Land of Waves and more concerned with survival than her birthday.

And it never occurs to her that by Valentines Day next year, Sasuke will not be anywhere near Konoha.


第6章

It's been almost four months since Sasuke left. Four months since Sakura's entire life was upended and thrown onto a path she never would've imagined. For herself or her friends.

She hasn't seen Naruto in a weeks, not since he started travelling and training with Lord Jiraiya. He sends letters when he can, but they're rare. She barely sees Kakashi anymore, either—he's always off on one mission or another. And, of course, Sakura herself is busy training with Tsunade and interning at the hospital. Most days, she can push away the hurt and worry, but other days, it feels like the glaring absences in her life are even more obvious.

She supposes that's why she makes the rounds on Valentine's Day, passing out chocolate to her male friends. Anything for a bit of normalcy. Anything to pretend like she's still a kid and not training until she bleeds almost every day to be strong enough to save the boy she loves.

Because she does love him.

Sakura knew she cared for Sasuke when they were little, but his complete absence in her life has created a gnawing, hollow void. The sensation is too painful for her feelings to have been a simple crush.

Somewhere along the line while she was on his team, learning to become a shinobi alongside him, Sasuke stopped being just a good-looking, smart boy to her. Sakura got to know him—the darkness he wore like armour, and the light he only revealed in his rarest, most unguarded moments. The boy who thanked her for loving him, instead of outright rejecting her even when he was leaving her behind. That boy needs to be saved, even if it is from himself. It's why she let Naruto make a promise to bring him back. And, no matter what, she will be right beside him when they do.

Until that moment, she's taking every day one at a time, trying to enjoy the little things that used to make her happy.

This year, there's no way to send anything to Naruto—even if there was, she suspects Lord Jiraiya would eat it before her friend got a chance. The guy is a complete lout, legendary shinobi or not. As for Kakashi, with his frequent absences, he's hard to pin down. Sakura considers giving her small gift to Gai-sensei to pass on, but she honestly can't take his overwhelming exuberance today.

Instead, she heads downtown to Manako's shop. If Kakashi checks in with anyone when he gets back from a mission, it's either his rival or his...well, whatever Manako is to him. In any case, the Inuzuka woman is the more perceptive and relaxed of the two options.

Upon entering her little shop, the familiar scent of parchment, ink, and gunpowder wash over Sakura. Shelves with different scrolls and tags line the walls, each one able to create explosive blasts of varying degrees of severity and with different effects. Manako is a genius of demolition—probably due to her keen senses—and, for a civilian, understands the shinobi world better than most.

The woman herself is hunched over the counter, frowning at several complex equations on a scroll from beneath a fringe of dark hair. As Sakura ventures closer, Manako sniffs and glances up, smirking in recognition.

"Well, well, well. Look who it is," she drawls, sliding her work away then straightening up, arms crossed. "It's funny. You kind of remind me of this kid who used to come in here to buy tags. Skinny little thing, about so high?" She makes a motion toward her hip with one hand. "Usually with a loud, blond brat who smells like ramen?"

"Knock it off. I was here last month."

"I'm just saying you used to be in here more often," Manako sighs dramatically. "I still keep your usual order in stock, too. But then again, you don't really have much use for that Sakura Fubuki technique of yours anymore, do you? Is it true that old Tsunade's teaching you to break mountains?"

Sakura goes red. "Where did you hear that?"

"Well, Scarecrow talks a lot, doesn't he?" she shrugs and then leers suggestively. "Or at least he does when you know what he likes."

Sakura's flattered modesty turns into embarrassed disgust just as fast. "Please stop talking now."

It's like thinking about parent-sex! Ugh. I should have gone with Gai-sensei after all!

But Manako laughs and mimes zipping her lips. "What can I do for you, kiddo?"

"I'm only here to drop something off for Kakashi. I always miss him when he's home, so leaving it outside his apartment seems silly," Sakura explains, handing over the small box of chocolates. "I mean, I doubt he'll care either way, but...it's Valentine's Day." She shrugs. "If you want them, go ahead."

"Nah, never touch the stuff. Me and most of my family are allergic to it."

Sakura blinks in surprise.

"That…makes sense. Hey, wait! Kiba always used to accept chocolate when we were in the Academy. He used to fight Naruto over it almost every year."

"That's because my brother's a stubborn little bastard who would eat himself sick just to prove a point," Manako replies dryly, reaching out to take the box. "But I can keep these in my fridge for Kakashi. He'll wander by, eventually." She eyes the small sack Sakura is carrying with her and raises an eyebrow. "More stops today?"

"Mm-hm," Sakura acknowledges, readjusting her gloves; they are still too large for her, but she wears them everywhere. "I've got a bunch to give out to my other friends before my shift starts at the hospital."

Lee should have just gotten back from a mission. Shikamaru and Chōji probably talked Ino into getting them barbecue. Sakura even caved and picked up something for Neji, even though he's never been what she might call friendly to her. She doubts he'll eat any of it, but he was part of the team who went after Sasuke to bring him back. She will be eternally grateful for that.

Sakura's throat aches at the reminder, a sure sign that if she keeps thinking on this, she'll start crying again. She clears her throat and suggests, "Then...should I get something different for Kiba?"

"Feh! Why bother? By now, it's almost tradition. Baby brother pukes his guts up, Mom yells at him, and Hana fusses over the little runt until he's feeling better—a vicious, unending cycle."

"That's ridiculous. If it's something he knows hurts him, why does he keep doing it?"

Manako shrugs. "People don't always like what's good for them."

Isn't that the truth.

The words hit a little too close to home, so Sakura decides to cut the visit short. She pastes a smile on her face. "Anyway, that's all I came in here for."

Manako nods, her face taking on a more thoughtful cast than Sakura expects from her. After a beat, she asks, "How're you holding up?"

The question is unexpected, considering she and Manako don't exactly have a close friendship, but there's no doubt to what she's referring. Everyone in the village knows of Sakura's one-sided feelings for the youngest Uchiha traitor. She knows people say things when they think she can't hear, but she's never taken Manako to listen to or care much for gossip.

In the hopes of side-stepping the issue, Sakura continues to smile, but it's a little more strained now. "What do you mean? I'm fine."

"No, you're not," Manako replies. "But I won't push it if you're set on faking it. Sometimes, it's the only way to make it through the day."

"What...what do you mean by that?"

She shrugs, piling her parchment and ink on top of the chocolates for Kakashi. "Nothing."

But now Sakura is annoyed. "So, why did you say anything?"

The bomb-maker is silent for a long moment, but at the last second, pauses in her journey to the back of the shop. "Look, you're not the first woman to get her heart broken by an Uchiha," she tells her bluntly, though not in an altogether unkind manner. "It hurts. In a way, it will hurt forever. But that just makes you stronger. And at least yours is still alive, right? So, just hold on to that. And go out there and kick ass."

She disappears into the back of the shop, leaving Sakura puzzling over that. The implications are strange and yet not as surprising as she would expect. Sakura forgets sometimes that Sasuke wasn't always the only Uchiha in the village. In fact, if the reports she's glimpsed on Lady Tsunade's desk are any sign, he still isn't.

Once, there was a whole clan, people who were part of this village. There are probably people still alive today who knew them, and now...now everyone pretends they didn't exist.

The notion bothers her, and it's still in her thoughts as she wanders alone through the Uchiha district at the end of her day. In her hands, she carries a small, potted cherry tomato plant which she bought at the market on her way home. She plants it behind Sasuke's empty apartment, in a spot she knows from her last visit here gets a lot of sun.

Looking down at the lonely little plant, she thinks on Manako's words and clenches her fists.

He's alive. Somewhere, he's alive. He will come back. And I'll make sure no one forgets him!


第7章

"You look tired, dear," her mother tells her one morning. "You should ask for the day off."

"I can't. Lady Tsunade will be testing out those antidotes I made yesterday."

"And she needs you there for that?" Mebuki harrumphs. "She can just tell you how they turned out tomorrow. You need a break. Have some fun. Especially today."

Sakura blinks in confusion for a moment, then glances back at the calendar.

Valentine's Day.

Oh.

"I really am busy, Mom. Besides, it's not a good time."

Even after more than a year, she doesn't think it will ever be time.

"Pah! There's always time for romance! What? Are you worried no one would ask you out?"

"That's not… I don't care about that sort of thing." The irony of the statement is not lost on her.

"What about your friend? The nice boy with the eyebrows. He's always so polite when he comes by here."

"I don't like Lee that way."

"Why not? He clearly cares about you."

"Mom. Stop."

"Sweetheart, I'm just worried about you," her mother beseeches, her lighthearted, teasing tone vanishing. "You can't put your entire life on hold for one boy—"

"Mom!"

"—who isn't coming back."

CRASH!

The kitchen table is suddenly in two pieces—jagged planks on the kitchen floor and Sakura's fist is throbbing. She didn't properly channel her chakra, and if it weren't for her still-too-big gloves, her knuckles would be bleeding right now.

"Sakura!"

"He's coming back!" she cries, ignoring her mother's shocked expression.

Mebuki recovers herself, hands on her hips. "There's no need to break our furniture."

"Naruto promised! We will find him together! He said!"

"It doesn't matter if you find him, if he doesn't want to be here! If he doesn't want..." Her mother trails off and Sakura tenses.

"Doesn't want?" she prompts.

"Never mind."

"Doesn't want me, right?" Sakura suggests, and now she's shouting. "Who cares if he comes back if he doesn't want me? Is that it? Well, I don't care! I don't care if he comes back and doesn't want me because at least he'd be here! Alive! And maybe, even if it's not me, he'll find someone who makes him happy! And he won't want to be away from all the people who care about him, and that is all that matters!"

She's crying now and, damn it, she promised herself she wouldn't do that anymore!

"Sakura—"

"I have to go," she sniffles, hurtling blindly out the door and away from the house.

In circumstances like these, she usually heads for the training grounds, often needing to punch something that isn't furniture. She knows she'll be dealing with the fallout of her temper for a while, but right now, she only needs to calm herself.

As she nears the outskirts of the village, she unconsciously changes directions and in no time, is standing in front of Sasuke's apartment.

The place is empty. No one wants anything to do with the remaining hints of the Uchiha clan, in much the same way that no one ever goes to Naruto's apartment—except for her—as if being in the same place as either one might spread disease.

Naruto would understand, she thinks bitterly. All of it.

But he's still travelling.

She hasn't heard from him in a while, beyond the occasional letter to tell her he's alive. Kakashi's reconnaissance missions have increased, and the last communication she had with him was a month ago—he sent her a congratulatory note after she became a chūnin. It's a milestone which should mean something to her. All she can think of is that she should've experienced it with Naruto and Sasuke by her side.

Now, she'll never get the chance.

Sakura clenches her fists, stalking around the back of the apartment, frowning down at the tomato plant she put there last year. She has been tending to it every few days and, as a result, it is flourishing. Tiny greenish orbs are already forming. It's the only living, growing thing in this entire damned neighbourhood with someone who cares about it.

White-hot rage overwhelms her and Sakura darts forward, ripping the little plant from the ground roots and all. She hurls it across the street before finally giving in and allowing herself to burst into gut-wrenching sobs.

She is late for her shift at the hospital. Tsunade takes one look at her and sends her home. It's clear she's completely unfocussed today. Ino lets her stay at her place that night and, thankfully, says nothing about Sasuke.

The next morning before returning home to apologise to her mother, Sakura goes back to the Uchiha district. The heap of branches and vines is, by some miracle, still lying forlornly in the road. With deliberate care, Sakura gets rid of the mutilated parts, and checks that the roots and stalk haven't been damaged too badly.

As she arranges splints to hold it up, Sakura tries not to feel like the tomato plant is an analogy for her life.


第8章

"I forgot to tell you," Sakura tells the little plant outside Sasuke's apartment. "I took down a member of Akatsuki."

Ino has told her since they were children that flowers grow better when you talk to them. Sakura hopes that's true of fruit, too, because she has been coming here every night for ten days straight, because she can't sleep.

The nightmares she has are horrible: detailed visions of Sasuke returning to the village, only it's not him. In these dreams, the village burns while a figure, face a shredded amalgamation of Orochimaru and Sasuke's features, laughs.

She shivers, and keeps talking, picking away dead leaves with bare fingers. Her gloves lay neatly to one side, still a little too big for her, but finally sporting a minute tear in one of the knuckles from her fight with Sasori.

This time her trembling is for another reason, because she remembers too well the sensation of having her body be manipulated and moved in someone else's control. She doesn't understand how anyone would choose that feeling willingly.

"It was three weeks ago, but so much happened since then I forgot. With the new team and everything, you know? And I wanted you to be the first one I told all about it, as soon as we…"

A lump forms in her throat, and she is unable to finish the sentence.

As soon as we brought you home.

Except they hadn't.

Instead, she had looked up into a face that she could barely recognise. She had stood frozen—And useless! Always so useless!—as he prepared to destroy them with a technique even the infamous Snake Sannin considered excessive.

And then he was gone.

She wishes she had someone to confide in about these dreams, someone real and not a lonely plant growing in the shadow of a long-abandoned home. But that would mean uttering Sasuke's name. Besides the fact her entire body hurts when she does that, she can't stand the pitying looks she gets from people when she does.

Sakura squares her shoulders and goes back to pruning the plant, viciously destroying any weed that makes an incursion into its patch of soil.

"Lady Tsunade says she thinks I'll be stronger than her one day," she continues, forcing an upbeat note into her voice. If she pretends long enough, maybe she'll believe it.


第9章

The world is gearing up for war. No one marks Valentine's Day this year.

Every morning, Sakura holds her picture of Team Seven close to her heart, and wonders what the future holds for her former teammates—and herself.

Every night, she dreams of a boy with black eyes and an injured soul, and fervently wishes she knew he was all right.

The gloves finally fit.


第10章

The war is over and life as she knows it has not ended.

In the last four months, every able-bodied man, woman, and child has been helping in the recovery process. Although there have been losses, the small circle of people who Sakura holds closest to her heart are all safe. She only wishes she could see them more often.

Naruto, in spite of his healing abilities, spends most of his time in and out of the hospital for physical therapy when he isn't busy studying to become Hokage.

"I saved the damn world, I shouldn't have to study anymore, believe it!" he complains constantly, much to the amusement—and quickly, annoyance—of anyone who will listen.

Kakashi is busy actually being the newest Hokage which Sakura finds hilarious. She suspects he's spending most of his free-time teaching Naruto so that he can get out of the job as quickly as possible.

And Sasuke... He's in prison. He's been there since the end of the war. Once the Infinite Tsukuyomi was dispelled and disoriented shinobi from the different nations were cared for, he surrendered himself to Konoha's justice without condition. The Raikage is still bombarding Kakashi with extradition demands, but they've become weekly instead of daily, so that's something.

As overjoyed as Sakura was with Sasuke's return home, it was nothing like she pictured the event would be when she was young. Instead of strolling through the gates supported by herself and Naruto, Sasuke was led through in chains, a binding seal on his eyes. Instead of the village welcoming him home with open arms, suspicion and judgement fell on him from all corners.

Even worse, he deserves it and she knows it.

It seems like such a betrayal—worse than that day when she made up her mind to kill him. She can't blindly support what he did the way she might've when she was twelve. Hell, she couldn't even bring herself to visit him for that first month.

Seeing Sasuke again after everything was hard. From the first night after defeating Kaguya, Sakura was plagued by nightmares. Not of the battle itself, but of the genjutsu that Sasuke placed on her. It was stronger than anything she'd ever encountered, multi-layered and complex. The trial she went through to break herself out of it—she still experiences a little nausea at the memory.

It took her a full month and many one-on-one sessions with Tsunade to separate her real memories from what happened to her while under the illusion. In the process of unravelling the mental trauma, she even discovered an unexpected side effect: a sudden understanding about what Sasuke underwent as a child.

He was subjected to his brother's Tsukuyomi not once, but twice. Without knowing what was happening or having anyone to help him through it afterward, he coped with the trauma in the only ways he knew how. He shut everyone out and sought out someone powerful enough to make sure he'd never become a victim again.

It's no wonder he was never able to care for her with all that taking up space in his head.

When she was growing up, Sakura always believed Sasuke's relationship with Naruto was simply an immature childhood rivalry—boys fight about the same stupid stuff that girls do. She resented it, too, because he cared more about measuring his abilities against Naruto than acknowledging her.

Now, though, she understands that it's the only relationship for which he had the capacity. Whatever Itachi did to him, it stamped out any understanding he's ever had of the way normal friendships and relationships are supposed to work. Everything had to be framed as a struggle, and to him, a rival made more of an impact than a friend, or even a lover.

And yet, even knowing that he may never be able to view her as anything but his former teammate, Sakura can't stop loving him. And that's fine, really.

Lady Tsunade never loved again after she lost her fiancé, but it didn't stop her from becoming the most powerful kunoichi in the world. Sakura still hopes Sasuke will return her feelings, but unlike when she was twelve, it's not her only dream. She might not be destined to become Hokage, but there's so much she can do for the world on her own.

And to start, she intends to make sure that what happened to her precious comrades—Sasuke, Naruto, Kakashi, and anyone else left orphaned by circumstance—will never happen again.

So, if Sasuke never left, she never would've discovered her ultimate purpose. Once she realised that, it finally made it easier to visit him. Not that he's technically allowed visitors, but Sakura's status as Tsunade's apprentice opens doors. And if it didn't, the fact that she's one of the new generation of elite shinobi who helped to save the planet would.

Visits don't happen very often—there's so much work to do at the hospital, and so many relief missions being outsourced these days. She's never allowed in without an escort because, she suspects, the Elders worry that perhaps one of Sasuke's old teammates might try to break him out of prison.

And, of course, the visits themselves are hardly typical.

Sasuke remains bound completely, blinded by a seal, and tightly secured in a way that makes her sick to see, even if she understands the necessity (even if that small, still-healing part of her is glad for it).

He never speaks, but he does listen when she talks. She knows he does because she spent her childhood talking at him, and she recognises the signs when he's listening or when he's ignoring her. Sometimes, she closes her eyes and imagines they aren't surrounded by bars in a cold, dank basement. It's not quite like the old days, but it's something.

Valentine's Day comes around once more, and Sakura makes her rounds to all the men in her life, out of habit more than anything else.

It's the first year she gives anything to Sai, who asks if he's supposed to pay her back in sexual favours. Ino is not happy with that, and yet for whatever reason, it's Sakura who she yells at and not Sai. It's even more unfair because by now, Sakura's a pretty good judge of when Sai is really confused or just messing with people. She has a suspicion about her two friends, but until she gets more confirmation, she just lets it go.

She also goes shopping with Hinata to help her pick out the right gift for Naruto. The Hyūga heiress is even more blatantly obvious about her romantic feelings than Sakura ever remembers being, but she's also painfully shy. And Naruto is painfully clueless.

In the end, Sakura ends up giving him both her and Hinata's gifts together, as if they're both just gifts for a friend. Hinata is obviously upset with herself, but she thanks Sakura for her help all the same, and Sakura tells her not to worry about it.

"By next year, we'll work up that confidence and you can give him chocolate all by yourself," she teases, but it's all in fun.

She's not sure which situation is worse—being in love with someone who knows about your feelings and doesn't return them, or being in love with someone who doesn't even see you as a woman. Either way, she and Hinata are in the same boat.

Maybe we should start a support group...

At the end of the day, Sakura thinks nothing of heading to the prison with a bag of goodies, buoyed up by whimsical sense of nostalgia.

She's a frequent enough visitor nowadays that, even if she wasn't the Hokage's apprentice, they'd admit her. Ibiki rolls his eyes while the guards tease her good-naturedly. Many of them are also still recovering from wartime injuries, and she'll usually stop to chat with them or offer treatment suggestions when she has the time.

Today, she offers them each small boxes of chocolate because, working down here, it's not like they're accessible to the people who care about them.

"Make sure you pay it forward and treat your sweethearts well next time you see them," she chides good-naturedly. "They have to put up with you, after all."

Pleasant laughs and blithe protest follow, while Sakura submits to the usual protocol. They check her belongings for contraband or (ridiculously enough) poison, and then she's wandering through the dank basement to the cell where Sasuke is being kept.

She thinks that Sasuke perks up when he hears her gait, but it's dark down here and she doesn't have a Sharingan.

Just an overactive imagination.

"Hello, Sasuke," she greets softly, waving even though he can't see it. "How are you?" As if he would answer her honestly or at all. "Is there anything you want me to check for you?"

She's the only person he'll allow to heal him, whether it's examining the remnants of his arm, or keeping fevers and chills at bay. The stubborn fool had the gall to refuse medical care that entire first month she didn't come visit him. Sakura screamed herself hoarse at him for that, considering she didn't go through hell for him to die of sepsis. She suspects he was a little surprised at that, a fact which fills her with no small amount of satisfaction.

"Well, all right. But the minute you notice something isn't right, you tell me, okay? I don't want to find another infection in your arm."

Silence.

"I can't stay very long today," she tells him apologetically. "There's a backlog of patients. Mostly stomach trouble. There are way too many guys eating sweets." She chuckles lightly, noting him tilt his head in question. "Valentine's Day, you know?" His mouth makes a familiar, reflexive downturn and her eyes soften. "I guess that's one upside to being in here, right? No one to bother you with unwanted chocolate."

There's no point in mentioning that, these days, she's the only one who would consider getting Sasuke sweets.

"On that note," she goes on, reaching for the contain of tomatoes she brought with her. "I actually did bring you something, for old times' sake. I bet you probably haven't had any in a while."

She holds one of the plump fruits out to him before she fully considers the situation. Then she freezes, fingers hovering inches from his lips, suddenly unsure of herself.

Idiot! He can't see what you have—and even if he could, he hates being useless! Way to remind him that he's basically dependant on everyone these days!

Not to mention that feeding another person is a bit intimate. She's suddenly conscious of her increasing heart-rate and must take a stabilising breath.

Stop it. There's no ulterior motive here. It's very simple. Sasuke can't use his hands, so I have to help him—it's the same as that time when Naruto couldn't feed himself. It doesn't have to mean anything.

"Open your mouth," she tells him, and even with her brain giving her logical arguments, Sakura can't help the flood of warmth to her cheeks. She can just imagine the expression he would be giving her—confused and suspicious—if not for the blindfold.

Right when she thinks he's going to keep ignoring her and she'll have to convince him, he does as she asks.

Before she loses her nerve, Sakura presses the fruit to his lips, and he carefully bites into it. A lone rivulet of juice runs down the corner of his mouth as Sasuke emits a definite noise of surprise—possibly even pleasure. Sakura experiences a giddy sense of accomplishment.

"Not too sweet, right?" she asks him nervously as he slowly continues chewing. "They shouldn't be. This type isn't supposed to be sweet and all, and I picked them early enough, so they're only just ripe. I was just surprised there were any. I mean, so much of the Uchiha district is just rubble now, but this little plant managed to survive it. Against all odds!" She smiles even though he can't see it. "Want another one?"

"Hn."

In anyone else, that would just be a vocalisation, but Sasuke might as well have just waxed poetic. Sakura's smile becomes a beam of joy, and the reaches for another tomato.

She doesn't let him eat all of them as he's on a restricted diet, and she doesn't want to make him sick. She does, however, promise to give them to his jailor to include with his dinner rations.

"I'll bring some more next time," she tells him, standing. "I've got to go now though, so..." She trails off, and as expected, he has nothing to say. Her happiness ebbs a little at this, but she shrugs. It's Sasuke, and she's already gotten more from him today than she would expect.

As she slips back through the iron door, though, the silence of the cell is broken.

"Sakura..." His voice is gravelly from disuse, making her stomach do a queer little flip and a chill climb up her spine. "Thank you."

The way he says it, she knows it's not just the tomatoes for which he is grateful. And unlike the first two times he's said these words to her, she isn't crying.

She smiles into the darkness and tells him, "You're welcome."

Maybe there's hope for the future after all.


結びの言‘

Sakura is busier than she's ever been in her life. Setting up a children's mental health clinic is a lot more difficult in practice than on paper. Given the lack of resources, tasks which should take weeks end up taking months. She can't remember the last time she fell asleep without planning out what problems she has to fix the next day.

Kakashi is as helpful as he can be, considering how much paperwork he gets buried under every day. And Naruto is usually busy shadowing him, learning protocols and proper Hokage etiquette. Besides, organisational skills are not his strong suit.

Sasuke has been gone for almost a year. Even though he's no longer out in the world seeking revenge, his absence is still keenly felt. Sakura tries to comfort herself with the fact that, at least this time, they are communicating.

They exchange letters, but they aren't the kind for which she still secretly hopes. They're sporadic at best, and only to check in—there are no lyrical descriptions of the places he visits or heartfelt declarations of love. Sometimes, he asks her for advice about local herbs that can be used as remedies, and he always ends the note with an assurance that he is fine.

She never really expected Sasuke to be the love-letter type, but sometimes, she wishes that he might give her an indication of whether they'll ever have more than this odd, holding-pattern friendship. The closest sign of affection she's gotten from him since his release from prison is a puzzling tap between her eyebrows. It's a little frustrating, to say the least.

Sakura doesn't send anything to Sasuke on Valentine's Day. There would be no point.

She doesn't want to expose his location if he's on a reconnaissance mission, and she doesn't think he would appreciate the gesture these days anyhow. Gifts from a hopeless romantic probably don't fit in to his mission of redemption. And tomatoes don't ship too easily by air, after all. Especially by the ornery little hawk Sasuke always sends. The thing has a mouth like a bullhorn and the same imperious attitude as Ebisu.

Still, Sasuke or not, it's part of her routine to check on the now substantial tomato plant in the Uchiha compound. The rest of the complex is still in ruins—Kakashi and Naruto are unwilling to do anything to the place until Sasuke gives a hint of his future plans—but her little addition is somehow still going strong.

Sakura only intends to check for weeds today and then head home, but upon kneeling down to get started, she finds something unexpected. Nestled within the vines of the plant itself, and clearly not there by accident, is an unadorned white box.

It's identical to the one she found on her windowsill so many years ago.

Fingers trembling, Sakura looks around, wondering if perhaps someone is playing a cruel joke on her. When she senses no one nearby, she picks up the box and very slowly opens it. Her breath catches in her throat at the sight.

Nestled in the centre is a tiny, white-gold pendant, moulded into the familiar shape of an uchiwa. There is no card, nothing besides the charm, and yet it's clear—just as it was with the gloves—who arranged this and for whom the gift is meant. Sakura tears up a little because the idea of Sasuke doing something like this is foreign, but so very much welcome.

It doesn't exactly clear up their relationship—if anything, it makes it more complicated and confusing—but for the first time in a long time, it's hope.

And she'll take that over anything else, any day.

終わり


Thanks for reading my story, and I hope you enjoy it! Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome (but character-bashing or ship-shaming will be deleted/ignored). For more information about updates, or just to get in contact with me, check out my Twitter (Typewriter Ninjutsu at KuriQuinn).

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