Sakura could still remember the way Sasuke's voice uttered the phrase, quiet but sure, as he greeted her this morning.
Sasuke coming back to Konoha so suddenly had taken her completely by surprise, of course--it had been about a year after that fateful encounter with Kido, the ANBU official who had taken the drug that had given him the chakra of the nine-tails. A year... since she defeated him. But from that point on, she had been sure that the "soon" in Sasuke's "I'll see you soon" would be fast approaching.
Sasuke had sought her out first, to her delight. She had been watering her plants--Naruto's gifts--before preparing breakfast when she heard a knock. She had thought there was an emergency at the hospital with one of her patients and rushed towards the front door, speaking even before opening it.
"Chiaki is that you? Did something happen to Gin's ar--"
She let out an audible gasp when she opened the door.
"Sasuke-kun!" She had breathed, as, like in one of those movies, the wind blew through the Shinobi's raven hair and revealed mismatched eyes. Sakura took in his worn cloak and his handsome face, which thinned out a little and darkened because of his travels. She thought it was unfair that he still managed to take her breath away.
"I'm home, Sakura."
She had blushed, not expecting him to say such a thing to her, of all people. After all, it was something normally said to family. She was reminded of the overwhelming feeling he had caused when he poked her forehead all those years ago, and wondered if she would ever get used to him being gentle with her.
Then she had blinked, embarrassed, and remembered that Sasuke was here, here, in front of her after 3 whole years of not seeing him. She jumped at the realization, and immediately flung her arms around her teammate.
Suddenly, she had felt like she was twelve again, hugging her Sasuke-kun in that manner. She hid her face on the crook of his neck. He smelled the same as she remembered, like leaves and dirt and combat.
The only difference was this time, Sasuke's right arm had hooked behind her, settling on the small of her back.
Acutely aware of this, she had uttered shyly: "Welcome home, Sasuke-kun. How have you been?" her words muffled as she said the words into the shinobi's cloak.
"Hn, travelling," Sasuke had replied, and Sakura could hear the smirk in his voice.
Sakura had leaned away and slapped his left arm, the one who wasn't -- couldn't be -- around her.
"I knew that, you baka, I meant..." she had broken off, unsure. "Well, I meant..."
Sasuke's smirk had softened into a smile, one she hadn't seen since before he left.
"This is hardly the place to talk about it, don't you think?"
Sakura blushed again, realizing her rudeness.
"Oh! I'm so sorry, Sasuke-kun. Do you want to come in for some tea?" She broke off their embrace and stood aside.
Sasuke shook his head, however.
"I have to report to Kakashi at the tower."
"Oh," she said again. "Right, of course." She bit her lip, looking down at her feet. She was trying to work up the courage to ask him out to lunch.
"I'll probably be done by lunch time. Will you be free then?"
Her eyes had shot up, surprised that Sasuke had said the words first.
"Yes!" she had said a little too quickly for her taste, but she liked when it brought the smile back to Sasuke's face.
"Then, I'll go ahead." He had turned around and headed to the direction of the Hokage tower to see their old sensei.
It was how she ended up distracted at work, realizing she and Sasuke didn't agree on a time or place to meet. It was a good thing she mostly had desk duty today. Her assistant Chiaki told her that it was uneventful at the emergency room where she was needed most days, and her patients were stable.
Now she was checking progress reports on the Children's Mental Clinic in Suna, a partnership she had established a year ago with the help of her childhood friend--
BANG! The door to her office opened suddenly, Ino Yamanaka entering with an urgent look on her face.
"Ino!" Sakura said, shocked. "What's wrong?? Why are--"
"Sasuke-kun is here, Forehead!" the blonde kunoichi said quickly, out of breath. "I ran... all..."
Sai followed soon behind her.
"She ran all the way here to tell you," Sakura's old teammate finished, with that inscrutable smile on his face.
"Oh!" Sakura sighed in relief.
"Yes, Sai saw him at the Ho--wait," Ino paused, frowning. "'Oh'? You don't seem happy."
"Oh no, no, I am!" she waved her hands defensively. "I just thought you were going to say there was an emergency at the clinic, I was worried and all."
Ino sighed. "You have got to stop being so wound-up about work, Forehead... wait a minute," she smirked suspiciously. "You didn't seem surprised, either."
Sakura blushed. Ino's smirked widened. Sai smiled cluelessly.
"I... well, he, um... already went... to see me... this morning," Sakura finished in a volume Ino almost couldn't hear.
Ino stared hard at Sakura until her mouth formed an O, then smiled so widely that Sakura's cheeks reddened some more.
"Ah, I see..." Ino said thickly, still staring into Sakura's eyes. "Well then, my job here is done. Sai?"
"Are we going now, Beautiful?" Sai asked.
"Ino--" Sakura started.
"Oh, never mind, Forehead, just tell me about your date later, ok?" the blonde replied dismissively, still smirking.
"D-date? Wait, what-- Ino-Pig?? Did you read my--"
But her childhood friend was already out of sight.
Sakura sighed, shaking her head. She hadn't even been aware of her friend's invasiveness until it had already occurred. She was too distracted to even notice. What else had Ino found out?
A quiet knock startled her and made her look up.
"Bad time?" Sasuke was at the door, taking in her position and overall aura.
"Sasuke-kun!" she squeaked.
"It's noon," the raven-haired Uchiha said quietly, looking at her. "Is anything wrong?"
"Oh, no no, nothing! I was just getting ready, sorry!" Sakura stood up and began to fix her desk. "So um, where are we going for lunch?" she asked in Sasuke's general direction, avoiding his eyes. She was afraid he would see how nervous she was.
"Ah. I saw the dobe when I went to Kakashi's office."
"Oh!" Sakura started, finally looking up at him. She felt somewhat relieved. She did not feel as if she was ready to be alone with the Uchiha. Sasuke raised an eyebrow. Was he annoyed?
"So," Sakura declared cheerfully, deciding to ignore his expression. "Ramen, then?"
"Sakura-chaaaaan!" The blonde, orange-clad shinobi greeted Sakura, waving his arms wildly. Naruto had mellowed out as he grew older, but he stayed this way towards Sakura. Sometimes he got too loud, but she humored him, since it actually reminded her of better times.
"Konnichiwa, Naruto," she greeted brightly. Sasuke was quiet beside her. They had actually talked some on the way to Ichiraku, with Sasuke promising to spill about his travels during lunch, but now he was stoic and passive again.
"Ne, Teme! What took you so long? Wanted Sakura-chan all to yourself, didn't you? I'll have you know--"
"Where's Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura cut him off, cheeks reddening. She knew it was a joke, Naruto was happy with Hinata, but his taunt directed at Sasuke made her slightly uncomfortable.
Naruto scratched his chin, and shrugged. "I dunno, he'll probably be an hour late as usual."
"I'm surprised he can even get out of that office for lunch with us!" Sakura thought out loud.
"Well, it is us," Naruto beamed.
"Baka, don't be so full of yourself," Sakura reprimanded.
"Well, it's true! He'd do anything for us, just like Teme here, right, Teme?" Naruto teased, putting an arm around his best friend and rival.
Sasuke only grunted.
Naruto was already attacking his second bowl of miso ramen while the other three were still settling into their high chairs.
"It's great to have you back, Sasuke," the Rokudaime noted, his eyes crinkling. It was obvious he was happy that the team was back together again.
"Hey, hey," Naruto said thickly through a mouthful of noodles. "What made you come back, anyway, Teme?"
Sakura, who was in between Sasuke and Naruto, nudged the blonde pointedly as a warning. Sasuke however, answered directly.
"It was what nii-san would have wanted," he said softly.
"Right, for Itachi," Sakura murmured, careful about the subject. Naruto had of course filled her in with what really happened with the Uchiha clan, and she had since harbored a quiet understanding of what Sasuke had really went through, although she never brought it up to her dark-haired teammate even in her letters to him.
Nevertheless she caught Sasuke steal a glance at her, and she looked down again, sorry that she mentioned Itachi's name. She figured it was still taboo to talk about Sasuke's ill-fated big brother, and that she didn't really have the right to mention his name in front of Sasuke. Besides, she was worried that all his hurt might resurface unnecessarily. She looked at Sasuke timidly for confirmation.
"Not just for him," he said firmly, looking straight at her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her old sensei's eyes crinkle, and Naruto stared cluelessly back and forth from his two teammates.
Sakura blushed, but Sasuke only smiled. Meanwhile she looked decidedly away, telling herself insistently he means the team, not you, over and over again---but her thoughts were interrupted by Sasuke's voice.
"You don't have to tiptoe around me. I am not that fragile. I have... come to terms with it," he went on to address everyone.
"Ah well we can't help it-ttebayo," Naruto declared loudly.
Sakura felt the need to reprimand her blonde teammate for being his usual tactless self, but Sasuke actually smirked, which surprised them all.
"I suppose not," he sighed. "Given all the trouble I caused before."
"That's not what Naruto---" Sakura started, but she was cut off by an insistent beep from her pager.
"Sakura-chaaaaan," Naruto pouted, all too familiar with the device that took away Sakura's time from them. It had been a source of constant annoyance for the blonde ninja.
"Ah, duty calls," the pinkette sighed, smiling apologetically, legitimately disappointed. She had expected a call somehow or another; her breaks were seldom uninterrupted. However, she had hoped she would get at least another 15 minutes.
"You should stop overworking yourself, Sakura," Kakashi warned. "Take a break once in a while."
"But I just did," Sakura stuck her tongue out, gathering her things. She didn't know why she couldn't look at Sasuke, whom she felt was staring at her.
"You barely ate," he remarked quietly.
"Don't worry about me, I can sneak in a bite later," she assured the Uchiha, looking at a spot beside the latter's shoulder. Absently, she nudged her bowl towards Naruto so he could finish it, another usual occurence. She did not know how to deal with this new, gentle Sasuke that seemed to be paying too much attention, much more than she was used to. "Well, then, I'll see you all later," she said cheerily.
"Is it always like this?" Sasuke asked quietly, looking at Sakura's back and bobbing pink hair getting smaller as she headed to the hospital.
"Yeah, teme," Naruto said. "Sometimes I want to steal that pager away and throw it where she can never find it, just for another extra 5 minutes with her."
Ugh. Despite her assurance earlier, Sakura had not been able to find a moment to eat. She wished she had finished at least half of her ramen, as she glanced up at the wall clock in her office.
Two hours more, and she can get out of here. She'll definitely get a yakisoba bun at a konbini for a quick bite and maybe, if she was lucky, find an open restaurant and get some take-out too.
"Agh!" She groaned, banging her head on her desk and hiding beneath all the paperwork she had to finish. "I'm so hungry..." She admitted to herself. She was so hungry, in fact, that she could smell the ramen she had earlier. She sniffed, holding back tears.
"Then you should have finished eating earlier," a familiar voice reprimanded her softly. She looked up, surprised to see Sasuke Uchiha leaning at her doorframe, holding up a take-out bag from Ichiraku.
"Sasuke-kun!" She exclaimed, her stomach growling some more. She blushed at the sound, but Sasuke frowned, as if upset at her stomach.
"Is that my ramen from earlier?" The pink-haired kunoichi asked curiously. That would explain the smell. Of course it would be soggy now but it was better than nothing.
"Of course not," the Uchiha huffed, seeming offended at the implication. "I got you a new one."
Sakura clapped her hands and almost ran towards her teammate, hugging him.
"Oh, thank you thank you thank you!" She gushed absently, excited to eat. "I could kiss you right now---" she broke off, realizing what she said.
Sakura broke away from the shinobi, embarrassed. "I mean, not literally, I just meant---"
"Ah," Sasuke said quietly, walking towards Sakura's table and setting the take-out bag down. She couldn't see his expression as he started clearing up her desk of all the paperwork she was working on.
After what seemed like forever, he turned back to her and raised his brow.
"Oh!" She realized, then immediately went forward and sat down. "Jaa, itadakimasu!" She said cheerily, watching as the Uchiha made himself comfortable in the chair in front of her desk.
"Sorry I had to miss most of lunch, Sasuke-kun," she apologized in between mouthfuls of noodles. "Chiaki needed help earlier with a difficult case..."
"You should eat on time," the shinobi replied.
"I do!" She blushed again as the shinobi narrowed his eyes. "Well, I try my best..." She admitted.
"You clearly aren't trying enough," the shinobi snapped.
She smiled then, because that sounded more like the Sasuke she knew from back when they were kids.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, nothing," she babbled peacefully. "Even then, you were always snapping at me... if I wasn't training enough, stuff like that. It brings back memories."
When Sasuke didn't reply, she said "Of course you probably wouldn't remember---"
"Annoying," he muttered, closing his eyes, probably in exasperation.
"W-What?" Her heart sank. Over the years, that word had taken on a lot of meanings as Sasuke said it in different contexts, but right now he really did look annoyed at her.
"Train, eat, either way I always meant the same thing," he said.
She waited for what seemed like forever for the shinobi to continue.
"I want---I've always wanted you to be able to take care of yourself."
It was then that he finally looked at her, and her heart skipped a beat.
"But clearly, you still can't get your priorities straight after all these years," he frowned.
"Sasuke-kun..." She said after a while. "I'm sorry---"
"Don't apologize," he told her firmly. "That's why I'm here, aren't I?"
She looked away, blushing.
He narrowed his eyes then, and silently waited for her to finish her ramen and her work, only interrupting to say he'd walk her home.
"Hmm," Sakura said worriedly. Sasuke had filled her in with what he reported to Kakashi and what he relayed to Naruto earlier.
He had experienced things in his travels that led him to believe there was a big threat out there. It was just a hunch for now, but he thought whatever it was, it was a bigger threat than Kaguya herself.
He had not let on that he was worried in whatever way, but she sensed that he was. It was Sasuke after all, and if he thought it was dangerous---
"Don't go, Sasuke-kun," Sakura stopped walking, touching the shinobi's arm tentatively.
He looked at her, then said "There is no choice for me here, Sakura. I have to go. I am the only one---"
She shook her head fiercely.
"I meant--- well I meant... don't go... alone," she looked up at him hesitantly.
Beat. He understood what she was offering.
"It's too dangerous," he said firmly.
She shook her head again.
"You'll need all your chakra for possible combat, right? Sasuke-kun, I can give you extra chakra reserves so you won't use all of yours up if you need to travel to other dimensions. Remember, when Obito and I brought you back from the desert dimension? I can be useful to you this time, I promise I won't make you regret taking me along---"
"That's not what I meant---"
"Then why?" She was close to tears now, unable to help it. Her vision was getting blurry. She had thought that Sasuke would at least consider her worthy of bringing along. "I'm not that weak girl that you need to keep saving, Sasuke-kun! I thought I proved that to you last year when I---"
She was cut off by Sasuke crushing his mouth against hers with what seemed like a sense of urgency. Sakura however remained frozen even after he pulled away, too quickly, unable to react at such a thing that she did not expect.
"You're not. Weak." He said through gritted teeth. "I just... I don't want to put you in unnecessary danger, Sakura."
He was looking at her with an intense fire in his eyes, almost angry.
Too much information was running through the kunoichi, however. The fact that Sasuke said she was not weak, that he didn't want to put her in danger, and that he kissed her... she could barely handle any of it. Besides, even without the tears in her eyes her vision remained blurry, which was weird. She blinked a few times. In fact the world looked like it was spinning really badly---
"You're awake," was the first thing Sakura registered, even before she opened her eyes. When she did, she saw that she was lying on her bed with her favorite blanket around her, and Sasuke was sitting on a chair a foot away cutting up what looked like...
"Are those apples?" She smiled sleepily. She was reminded of a similar event, but with the shinobi at the receiving end.
"Aah." Pause. "Kakashi agreed to give you an off day today."
"Today?" She frowned. Then her eyes widened. "Did I pass out and---"
"Sleep through the night, yes," Sasuke said softly. He handed her the plate.
She ignored it and stared at him, information finally catching up to her muddled mind.
"You kissed me," she squeaked, still staring at the shinobi's face. He was looking at her earlier when he tried to hand her the plate of apples, but now he was looking at anywhere but her, plate still extended.
"What about it?" He asked snippily. He made to hide his red face in his high collar, which he forgot wasn't there anymore. That caused his face to turn even redder, so he just turned away.
She grinned. He's cute when he's embarrassed.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing," she said, her voice lilting. "It's just..." She couldn't help it. She couldn't help it.
"What?" Sasuke looked at her finally, and she thought his eyes glinted with something like worry for a second.
"Can you do it again?" She smiled innocently.
"Sakura!" He choked on air, turning as red as his favorite fruit.