It's not like she could have said no.
No matter how dubious it sounds, it's still a mission, and she has never turned down a mission before. She needs the money, she needs the social status, she needs the support it will bring her. So of course, when Sakura is ordered to marry Neji, she says yes.
She allows herself one night to cry. For just one night, she goes out and drinks herself into oblivion in an inn at the edge of the Land of Fire, where people recognize Kyojin Sakura but don't know her. She drinks, and she drinks, and she willingly forgets that Tsunade taught her how to metabolize alcohol.
She wakes up with a splitting headache and a strong nausea, so she goes into the nearby village and finds the leader. It's a small, round woman who takes on look at her and gives her a bowl of broth. Sakura tells her she's looking for work, asks her if there's anything she can do. Shizuka sends her to the fields.
She spends twelve hours straight with a pickaxe in her strong hands, digging into the dirt. At night, she eats at the village's canteen and goes to sleep in the barracks. The next morning, Shizuka sends her to the forest. Sakura joins the lumberjacks and takes down trees tall like mountains. When the other men start to tire, she shoulders the trunks like they weight nothing and bring them to the lumber-mill.
At night, she eats at the village's canteen and goes to sleep in the barracks. The next morning, Shizuka sends her to the daycare.
They don't have a doctor, but they have an herbalist. Sakura sits in his house all day and heals everyone who shows up, then gives a crash course to the man so he can help the people better. At night, she eats in the village's canteen and goes to sleep in the barracks. The next morning, Shizuka tells her to go home. Sakura bows low, lower than she should, then she leaves.
Konoha looks exactly the same as when she left it, but Sakura is the one who's different. She goes to the temple and she prays for hours. When dusk comes, she swims in the Naka river and she walks, naked through the Nara forest. She tries to remember who she is.
The next morning, she waits at the edge of Nara territory and waits for Shikamaru to come. She's standing straight, her hands at her back and head high, like she's reporting after a mission. It makes Shikamaru tense instantly, even more than realizing she waited for him when he gave her express permission to enter Nara territory.
Her voice gives. She blinks slowly, then tries again.
“Shikamaru, I can't be in a relationship with you anymore.”
She isn't looking at him, her eyes fixed somewhere behind his right shoulder. Sakura knows she owes him more. But she still isn't looking at him.
“I am marrying Neji at the solstice.”
He swallows, hard, she can hear it.
“Do you want to marry Neji?”
Her fists clench behind her back. “That's not relevant.”
His voice is a shakuhatchi flute when he answers. “I wish you the best, Sakura.”
“Same to you, Shikamaru.”
She turns her back on the rising sun and starts walking.
The Hyūga Elders are nothing like she imagined them. They're middle-aged, gentle and polite when she bows at the waist. They offer her tea and invite her to sit with them when she introduces herself.
“We know who you are, Kyojin Sakura,” Kyoshi says. “The Hyūga Clan is honoured to welcome you amongst us.”
Her throat is too tight for her to answer, so she nods.
“We are aware that you are not here by choice, but we hope you'll find a home here,” Jiman continues, all grace and ethereal beauty.
“I did have a choice,” Sakura replies, because it's important to her that they know that.
Jiman nods. “Yet I don't believe the choice comes from your heart.”
It does, but she stays quiet. Konoha is her heart, and Konoha wants her to marry into the Hyūga Clan. Her soul is the one weeping for forest green and brown eyes.
Sonkei speaks next. “We were informed that you do not have any remaining family. The gods won't be please by that. Is there truly no one you consider your kin?”
“Naruto,” she blurts out. “Sai, Sasuke, Kakashi and Yamato. My team. My kin.”
Sonkei nods, pleased. “They will be informed.”
Kyoshi pours all of them another cup, her hands steady and assured. Her white eyes are reflecting in the tea.
“We are here to make sure you understand our way.”
“Few things will be demanded of you. You are not required to live on Clan land. You are not required to use the Hyūga name. You are not required to teach your techniques to the clan.”
Jiman takes over. “We ask that you carry a symbol of the clan if you don't take the name. We will go over what that means later. We ask that you participate in the ceremonies and traditions, and that you take part in the meetings Neji-sama will have to attend. We ask that you protect the Hyūga interests, because they will be your own.”
“What about-” she swallows. “What about children?”
Kyoshi looks at her with a serious expression. “You're marrying into the leading family, but Neji-sama is second in succession. Everyone in the Clan would happily welcome a child from your marriage, but it remains a choice you both will make.”
“Hinata-sama will oversee the ceremony, as Clan Head. We ask that you remain in the Compound one day before and one day after.”
They talk and they talk, and she gets used to the idea as she gets to know this noble clan. When they're done, Sakura bows, a ringing in her ears making her dizzy. The Elders smile at her. Her soul is still keening, but she remembers who she is. Kyojin Sakura is making her village proud.
The solstice is one day away and she's standing on Hyūga ground. A shrine maiden is explaining everything to her and Sakura listens with attention. The last thing she wants is to anger the gods, especially now that she's met one in real life. After the maiden leaves, she's joined by Hanabi and Hinata, carrying a wooden chest. Her ceremonial shiromuku weights a ton, that she knows for sure because she brought it to the Compound a three months ago.
As tradition wants it, the shiromuku is the one her mother wore at her own wedding. Normally, the women of the clan make one for each little girl who is born, but the Haruno Clan is dead and buried under the ruins of the old Konoha. The white cloth has been cared for by the Hyūga and a flame has been sewn on one sleeve.
“For what it's worth,” Hinata says, “I'm happy you'll soon be my sister.”
“Me too,” Hanabi adds softly.
Sakura nods. She doesn't know what she's feeling, but she's glad they're here.
It takes her hours to get ready, even with the aid of the Hyūga maids. She puts on the shiromuku, its weight heavy on her shoulders. Her face is painted white and her lips red, before the black wig hides her hair. She tucks a Haruno fan in her obi, the cherry red of the wood reminding her of home.
Sakura walks slowly to the torii gate where Neji is waiting. His long hair is tied in a high bun and he looks handsome in the traditional montsuki. The Hyūga flame is on his back, like a brand. She stands at his side, feeling his chakra brush against hers, and she breathes.
The shrine maidens go first, their red umbrellas guiding Sakura and Neji. Behind her are her team, and Neji only has his cousins and a young man following him.
It's not a long ceremony. They drink the sake, they clap, they listen to the prayers. Each member of their families drink the sake as well and they bow to Amaterasu and the Yaoyorozu. At the reception, all of their friends are here, and Neji and Sakura sit on the stage in formal matching kimono. She knows it was only a cup, but Sakura feels drunk on the sacred sake she drank at the shrine.
Everyone knows it's not a marriage of love and there are no speeches, but their friends are smiling anyway because they both could have been married to worse people than each other. They get up to light the candles and receive the envelopes, and everyone avoids the topic like the plague. She knows Shikamaru is somewhere in the room but she doesn't see him, and she's almost glad. Her team hug her close, but the tears in their eyes aren't happy ones.
After everyone is gone and they're both into comfortable clothes, they go back to the main house in silence. Sakura realizes she hasn't seen Neji since she saved his life in the war, and now that quiet man is her husband.
“Do you want to have sex?” Neji asks when they're inside, blunt and defeated.
Sakura looks him in the eyes and she feels closer to him than ever before. “I'm asexual. I don't- I'd prefer not to.”
“Alright. If you don't mind, we can share the bed. Have you decided where you want to live?”
“I don't mind the Compound. The Hyūga are all nice to me.”
“You're a Hyūga, Sakura.”
Right, she is. She took the name so she doesn't have to dress in white and purple and let her hair grow. She's still Kyojin Sakura, no matter which land she lives on.
Sakura sits on the edge of the bed, in shorts and a tank top. She turns to look at Neji, taking a deep breath.
“I have nightmares,” she says quickly, before she changes her mind. “I can sleep elsewhere if you'd prefer.”
She likes that he takes it as the warning that it is, and that he really considers everything that she means as he finishes braiding his hair.
“How likely are you to hurt me?”
She replies honestly. “If you stay away as soon as it starts, I shouldn't. Just throw something at me and I'll wake up. If you touch me, I can't promise anything. I hit hard.”
For the first time since they met at the torii gate, he smiles. “I know that, Kyojin Sakura.” In his mouth, it sounds like a compliment, and she loves it.
Her life is fundamentally different after that, and yet similar in every way. She still goes on missions, she still trains, she still argues with Sasuke about Naruto's outfits. Now, she sits at Neji's right during clan meetings and decide with the three cousins what they will grow next in the fields and which children are being sent to the Academy. She heals a little girl who bruises her knee while playing in the Compound, and the girl calls her auntie. She feels good.
An hour later, she runs into Chōji at the market and the man refuses to look at her.
It turns out feeling good isn't enough.
It's not that she's unhappy. It's that a part of her is digging its feet in the ground every time she smiles at Neji or laughs with him. When she goes to sleep at night, in the same bed as a husband who hasn't so much as mentioned sex since they got married, something is screaming at her happiness.
The Hyūga all love her, she's spending time with Hanabi because she genuinely enjoys the young woman's company, and children with white eyes are calling her auntie. And yet, Ino fakes her smiles around her and Chōji refuses to look at her.
She goes into Kakashi's office to request a mission, away from everything, so she can remember who she is again. She takes one step inside the room before she runs into Shikamaru. Sakura doesn't bulge, but he loses his balance at the unmoving strength that inhabits her every limb. Her hand shoots out and caches his arm before he can fall.
His eyes are heavy on her and she can't seem to take her hand off. She swallows a choking breath when two water drops fall on her knuckles. He shakes her off and leaves without a word. Sakura is left facing her teacher and she doesn't know how to breath anymore.
Kakashi is by her side in a second. She opens her mouth to say something, but a heart wrenching sound comes out instead. An arm wraps around her waist and Kakashi presses her face in the curve of his neck. Sakura breaks down into ugly sobs, hidden away from her new clan and the love of her life.
She gets a mission to Iwa where she kills the son of a nobleman. He has long dark hair that spills around his pale face after she slit his throat. She feels disgusting, and it has nothing to do with the life she just took.
Neji welcomes her home with takoyaki from her favourite restaurant and she plays go with Hinata. When they go to bed, Neji takes her hand for one brief moment. The nightmares that night are the worst ones since she moved it.
“Do you love me?” she asks him in the morning, umeboshi sticking to her teeth like mud.
“I don't hate you,” he answers, setting down his chopsticks with a sharp sound.
“I'm not happy,” she says, umeboshi turning to ash.
“I know,” he answers, a hand coming to cover his eyes.
“Are you happy?”
Sakura stares at his back as he leaves the table without answering.
She takes a walk in the village and Ino ignores her when she waves in her direction. Sakura finds the spot she bathed in the Naka river, almost a year ago, and considers lowering herself in the water and forgetting to come up to breathe.
The thought slaps her in the face and she runs back to the Hyūga Compound without a care for the strange looks she receives. She's barely two steps in when Neji grabs her arm and shunshins to their house. As soon as he lets her go, his legs fold under him and he kneels in front of her, his forehead touching the ground.
“I'm sorry that you had to marry me,” he whispers against the grass. “You don't have to stay. You never have to stay if it makes you unhappy.”
She kneels too and puts a hand on his cheek, making him face her. “I can't leave, Neji.”
“Of course you can, I won't tell anyone, you'll be okay.”
Her second hand joins the other and she cups his face, looking him straight in the eyes. “This is my home, now. You've made me a Hyūga, anata. Would you refuse me my home?”
He's crying. This beautiful, beautiful man who dedicated his life to his Clan now that he can't fight anymore.
“How can I make you happy?”
“You make my heart sing, anata. But my soul has never left the Nara forest, and you know that.”
He sighs and leans forward, until their foreheads are touching. His dark hair falls around their joined faces.
“Let's go, then.”
“Come, anata,” he says, rising and offering her his hand.
They walk hand in hand through the village, and it's such an unusual sight that people stop to smile at them. Neji leads her to the edge of Nara territory and touches the seal at the gate. It doesn't take long for a middle-aged man to appear.
“We would ask for a meeting with the Clan Heir, if he's available.”
Sakura looks at him with horror, her mind coming to term with what happened in the last moments.
“Neji, you can't-”
He shushes her but squeezes her hand. They only have to wait a few minutes before Shikamaru is in front of them, pale and tired and his eyes looking twice their age.
“What can I do for you?”
“We would like to enter a relationship with you.”
Both Shikamaru and Sakura do a double take, but she quickly recovers and nods frantically.
“Is this a joke?”
Neji frowns. “I wouldn't dare show either of you this much disrespect. I've never been more serious in my entire life.”
“What will your clan say?”
Sakura smiles. “Why would they say anything? They love us. They will love who we love, too.”
“Do you love me?” Shikamaru asks, an echo of Sakura's voice from the morning.
“I love you.”
“Do you love me?” he asks again, looking at Neji.
“I don't hate you.”
And Shikamaru closes his eyes, a small sigh escaping his mouth. Then he crosses the gate and takes Neji's offered hand. Faced with the warmth in his heart, it's not like he could have said no.