Back when Sakura was younger, when things were easier and her biggest problem was how to get Sasuke to notice her, she used to keep tally marks on Sasuke.
It started with flowers. Her and Ino in her parents' shop, flowers in their hands as they plucked out the petals. He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not. The day they find out that they both like the same boy, Sakura leaves the flowers behind, but the concept she keeps.
HE LOVES ME and HE LOVES ME NOT, two little mental columns over the years in the Academy and their brief time as genin before everything went to shit. Even after he had abandoned Konoha, her mind still worked in tallies of everything he did. She was a paper ninja, after all, and any intelligence she could get was her friend.
Every time he called her annoying was another scratch in HE LOVES ME NOT, each mark painful in her heart. Every time he rejected her offers to train together or go on a date, Inner Sakura dutifully kept track, and every time, Sakura convinced herself that someday, love would prevail over all.
Every time he stood in front of her, blocking and defending attacks meant for her, Sakura blushed and added a mark in HE LOVES ME, even if a part of her yearned to be able to fight back for herself. It was okay, she told herself, it means he cares about me, it means he doesn't want me to be hurt. She likes him defending her, she tells herself, and sometimes she believes it.
Every time he let her prattle on and talk about herself without interrupting her, even if it was just him tolerating her babbling, she added a tentative mark in HE LOVES ME. Momma always told her that a man who listened to her cared, and so Sasuke must care, right?
When the Chuunin Exams start, Sakura knows she isn't ready but she can't not go, not if it means disappointing Sasuke and even Naruto and Kakashi-sensei. And so she goes, even with the doubt in her heart, and when they reach the second floor and she notices what's off and then Sasuke compliments her on noticing the genjutsu, she beams to herself in pride and adds another mark to the sadly lacking tallies on HE LOVES ME.
And then they're thrust into the forest and…
"Sakura… Who did this to you?"
She adds a tally mark on HE LOVES ME, even if part of her was cringing in fear at the sight of the black marks spreading across the body, the anger that he was practically radiating and the Killing Intent that was leaking from his pores.
But the sight of him like that was unbearable.
She asks him to stop and he does, her arms wrapped around him, and even with all the shit they've been through today, Inner Sakura proudly adds a mark down HE LOVES ME. She feels dumb about it, big things are happening around her and she's such a child with her tallies and her marks. But the habit is long ingrained in her and no one has to know, so she does it anyway.
But then Sasuke leaves.
Sakura thinks about the way he said thank you, and a part of her wavers, before she decisively puts another tally in HE LOVES ME NOT. She counts it over, finally sees how naïve and dumb she was, how HE LOVES ME NOT overpowers and overwhelms HE LOVES ME in every single way that counts.
He does not love her, she thinks, but she still loves him.
And that's supposed to be the last of it, the tally marks the last remnants of her childhood crush. She has more important things to do, healing jutsu to learn, people to save. For two years she does not see him, and whoever came up with 'out of sight, out of mind' obviously knows nothing, because for two years she thinks about him and yearns for him to come back.
When he does finally come back, Sakura is at a loss. Her interactions with him used to be guided on HE LOVES ME and HE LOVES ME NOT, but after years of him trying to kill her, her trying to kill him, them working together and then her healing him and Naruto after their dumb fight to the death, it feels wrong to just try to slot his behavior into two simple lists. It's more complicated than that.
Her tally list is long gone, but a part of her still thinks about it. She doesn't quite know if he loves her and she doesn't dare hope. None of her old rules apply anymore, and more and more Sakura is realizing just how flawed her tallies are.
He doesn't stand in front of her anymore, doesn't parry and block hits meant for her without even giving her a chance to fight for herself. These days, he lets her fight, and they fight back to back. He believes in her strength and her capability to stand on her two feet and it means more to her than any baddie he’s ever defended her from. They spar against each other and he doesn't demean her, doesn't call her weak, only gives her stilted tips to improve that she takes to heart. She doesn't know if he loves her, but he believes in her.
Sometimes Naruto says something dumb and Sakura replies and they fight in that playful sort of way born out of years of comfortable back and forth, and Sasuke will look at them and shake his head. Sometimes she'll push him to take his medicine or to go to physical therapy for his arm, and he'll sigh. Sometimes, when it's late at night and all three of them are lying down peacefully quiet for once, she'll say something and he'll huff out a small breath of air before he calls her annoying. She wavers and wonders if that would be a mark on HE LOVES ME NOT on a board that doesn't exist anymore, but she swears that the way he says it is with fond amusement.
These days, he still lets her babble on and on about herself, but this time, when she asks or when there's a lull in her speech, he talks about himself. Little bits of information at a time, nothing big, just how his mother used to buy him tomatoes, or how his cousin Shisui was so annoying, or the way his father patted his head when he did a good job. Every single time Sakura finds herself staring at him wide-eyed, not wanting to push but wanting to hear more. It's not what he's saying that shocks her, although she loves hearing about him, it's the fact that he's telling her out of his own free will. She doesn't know if he loves her, but he trusts her.
When he leaves, she says goodbye and it hurts, but she smiles and lets him go. She knows that this time he'll come back. And when he does, he drops by her apartment and takes her out. Sometimes just the two of them if Naruto isn't around, but usually it's the three of them, or four, if Naruto brings along Hinata.
She takes a chance on one of these days when they're seeing him off, and she asks if she can come along with him. No one is more surprised than her when he actually says yes.
Oh, she thinks.
She smiles at him and they go. They walk side by side.
For the first time, she doesn’t have to wonder whether or not he loves her.