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Sasuke’s temperature runs higher than most. It’s not something Sakura noticed in their beginnings, too caught up in the teenage angst of his indifference to focus on his specifics. After that, when his hand was on her neck to end it all, well, it’s only natural that the heat she felt was from the anger in his eyes rather than the fire in his blood.

It’s a shade or two from fever, not the hot heat of Naruto nor the solid warmth of Tsunade on a sentimental day; a burning which Sakura could dismiss as the furnace of her enduring love for him, if not for the fact it doesn’t linger when he leaves. It’s a frisson, a reaction, a blossoming spark of unbearable brightness against his dark.

She thinks on it in the months after he leaves.

Kakashi smiles when he catches her touching her forehead and Naruto sets his eyes on the horizon, but to her, it’s the firebrand of Sasuke’s fingertips against her skin that is the yardstick by which she measures his absence.

When the letter comes that announces his return, Sakura doesn’t touch the page in case it burns.


Two years of redemption stretched between them and Sasuke looked… underfed. Despite Sakura’s immediate concern it was strangely comforting. Familiar. In their youth he had been a surprisingly picky eater, and without the ominous intentions of Orochimaru keeping him on the thicker side of muscular, Sasuke looked like he hadn’t bothered to eat beyond the necessities.

She counted the faint lines of his ribs under his shirt as he wandered closer, sure he was walking at a snail’s pace with the express intent of irritating the blonde ninja beside her. His stark ribs felt like a statement of independence, testament to the lonesome nature of his penance, and perhaps they were part of it.

At this distance, the only heat she felt was the burning of her anticipation.

“Nervous?” Naruto asked of her silence.

All she managed was a low hum in reply. He nodded in understanding, fidgeting beside her; they both were.

Finally, Sasuke came to a stop in front of them, lone hand on his hip in a stance that was at once arrogant and relaxed. Sakura watched as he exhaled, face blank at the final step over the Konoha threshold. It had to be hard: Team 7 had come to meet him through it, tacit in their agreement that Sasuke would never again have to walk through or leave the gates alone, and his silent acknowledgement of the gesture was so very him it hurt.

His gaze slid to Kakashi first. “Yo,” he said, a touch of mockery in his cool tone as he studiously ignored Naruto’s rapidly twisting expression.

Kakashi’s face creased into its true smile, grey eyes warm over the dark expanse of his mask. “Yo,” he mimicked, holding a hand out to his former pupil in greeting. They were all ignoring the anxious way the gate guards hovered around their Hokage; Sasuke was as much feared figure as he was saviour, and though few had forgotten the promises he’d made in his dark days, fewer still believed he’d never think to act on them now.

A strained silence fell, but then: Naruto looked like he was fit to burst, and his tortured face was the perfect break the tension needed. He choked out something that sounded like “welcome home” but could just as easily be “wicked slow” and suddenly the gate guards were laughing, and when Sai slapped Naruto on the back it didn’t feel remotely calculated. Kakashi held a hand up to his mouth to stifle his laughter and even Sasuke smirked; it wasn’t until he shifted his uncovered eye to Sakura that the group realised she wasn’t adding to the clamour.

A quiet Sakura, outside of the infinite patience of her profession, was not a normal Sakura.

This time, the heat she felt was all her, plagued with an unexpected wave of near-forgotten shyness at the way she felt tongue-tied and awkward. Sakura knew she was anything but shy these days. She just hadn’t expected to not know what to say when it came to Uchiha Sasuke. Not after everything.

Worst of all, there was clear expectation written across his striking features. He was waiting for acknowledgement - from her - and the part of her heart that was twelve years old and in need of his attention was elated. The rest of her was simply irritated that she had no witty remark to hand. The moment stretched beyond the shy and into the awkward and when the rest of her team started to exchange glances and Sasuke’s eyebrows drew together in the barest of frowns, Sakura opened her mouth in panic and-

“I, ah, I-” pausing, frantic, her eyes lingered on his ribs and a million thoughts fought for dominance in her head - o h god, welcome home, his travels, his appetite, does he want to get something to eat, anything, Sakura - “ there, ah…”

Naruto’s eyes went wide as saucers. Haruno Sakura did not stutter.

“T-tomatoes!” she finally half-yelled, right into his face.

It was nonsense. Utter nonsense. The kunoichi immediately turned the shade of her offending remark, giving in to the urge to cover her burning face with her hands. She wasn’t lucky enough to miss how she’d actually managed to capture Sasuke completely off guard with her yell; one for her bingo book entry, she guessed. Let the ground open up and swallow me - and Sakura calculated the precise amount of chakra needed to end her suffering - when Naruto broke the stunned silence that followed in her wake.

“Tomatoes?” he repeated, all confusion. A second passed while she refused to elaborate.

“Ugly, are you hungry? ” asked the ever-literal Sai. The teammate who wasn’t aware of Sasuke’s favourite food. “This is a strange time to be hungry.”

That was enough. If Sai felt the need to question her behaviour then Sakura knew this was going down in the history books as the worst reunion ever. There was two years’ worth of chakra stored in her Yin seal and she felt tempted to expend it all at once if it meant she could disappear from the scene - maybe summon a thousand slugs for distraction, or get someone to saw her in half, that was Tsunade’s style -

Kakashi took pity on her. “Lunch?” he offered, all smiles with his tone bordering on amused. “Sasuke looks like he needs a few solid meals.”

“Not ramen,” the man in question replied. How fitting that the object of her sudden madness chose to needle Naruto rather than find out what she’d meant. So it was to be business as usual for their dynamics, but then: “I feel like salad… tomato salad.”

Sakura peeked out from under her fingers and managed a self-deprecating smile. And later, she’d swear up and down that the too-thin ninja in front of her returned it in kind.


“That’s the first thing you said to him? Your big reunion?” Ino was too shocked to tease, cerulean eyes sweeping over her friend’s face in blatant disbelief.

Sakura nodded around her drink, a sparkling affair frankly lacking in alcoholic punch.

“That’s terrible,” Ino said emphatically.

“You don’t have to tell me that,” Sakura replied, before noisily sucking up the rest of her cocktail and putting it down with slightly more force than necessary. They were in the second-best bar in Konoha, which Naruto had somehow reserved for something of a welcome party for Sasuke. Ino had been in a sour mood because - though she would never admit it out loud - she hadn’t managed to do better, and it was a remarkable feat for a Saturday evening anyway, not least of all because Sasuke had actually showed up . Sakura thought she could cheer Ino up with a little old fashioned poking-fun at her friend, but the whole sorry situation was apparently too grave for levity.

“And what happened next?” Ino asked, swatting away the attentions of a random jounin with the practised ease of a girl who does it daily. Sakura watched as the guy turned, unperturbed, to consider her as the next best choice. All it took was a raised pink eyebrow before he shot them a grin and wandered off to more amenable prospects.

“We went for lunch, Sai commented on it three times, and before the fourth I made some excuses and ran away.”

When she put it like that, the wince on Ino’s face didn’t seem exaggerated.

“And let me guess,” the blonde kunoichi commented, finger poised to order her friend something stronger, “tonight’s the first night since then that you’ve managed to drag yourself out?”

“How did you guess?”

Ino smirked, placing down Sakura’s fresh drink in front of her. Raising three fingers in the air, she listed her suspicions (which were annoyingly accurate); “this is your third drink, and they’re getting stronger every time. You only do that when you’re frustrated with something, or trying to impress Tsunade-sama, who isn’t here.”

Sakura shrugged.

“Second - I just watched you scan the room yet again to see if you can spot those teammates of yours.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Sakura didn’t bother denying anything - she knew Ino could read her like the back of her hand. Still, she refused to go down without a fight.

“You’re normally the first to complain about being joined at the hip… with Naruto and Sai, anyway. If you’re looking for them, you’re looking for a certain someone a little more infamous.

“I think I hate you, Pig.”

“Want to hear my third reason?”


Ino threw her head back and laughed, heedless of the way the patrons of the bar drank her riotous glee in. Sakura glared at her, a little peeved at the attention they were drawing. Naruto was sure to notice. And where he went-

“My third reason is that you’re wearing that awful grey dress again. You only wear that when you want to look good but stop short of sexy.”

“Insults aside, what has that got to do with how much of an idiot I looked in front of Sasuke-kun?”

There was a glimmer in her friend’s blue eyes as she replied. “What, indeed?”

Sakura huffed, too amused to be annoyed, and crunched the ice in her drink, contemplating the inevitable run-in she was going to have with the boys later. Ino was right: she’d been avoiding them in ways both obvious and devious, working harder than she needed to at the hospital so that Naruto’s general caution about her temper around her longer shifts drove him to avoid her.

Sasuke never sought her out on his own. Never had. So it was perfect, really; foolproof, if not for the knowing smirk on the face of the woman next to her.

“Yes, fine, you’re right,” Sakura sighed. “You know you are.”

“What’s my prize?” Ino asked, fluttering perfect eyelashes her way.

The pink-haired kunoichi rolled her eyes, placing a deliberate hand on Ino’s muscled thigh. “There’s no point flirting with me to get your way, Pig. Out with it - what do you want?”

A grin almost savage in its expanse stretched across her companion’s beautiful features, distorting them with its intensity. “The sight of you in that is honestly hurting my eyes. I’ve got a new dress, but it’s a bit...” she began, emphasising her much larger bust, and Sakura saw how the night was going to play out. No use fighting this battle. She stood up, hands on her hips, and let the other girl tug her eagerly out the back door.

“You better at least have sake in that hovel you call home.”

When they returned a fuzzy half hour later, the party was in full swing and Sakura couldn’t even make out Naruto’s unmistakable blonde mop amongst the shifting crowd. She sincerely doubted this amount of people had shown up for Sasuke’s return, former popularity at the Academy notwithstanding; no, it was likely their other teammate’s irresistible fame these days that had brought out the horde.

That, and shinobi never passed up the opportunity to let loose. Feeling a little tipsy, Sakura mused that she and Ino were certainly no exception as they sauntered back towards the bar.

Ino promptly abandoned her, drawn to the irresistible beat of the dancefloor. Sakura smoothed down the skirt of the other girl’s latest purchase, secretly marvelling at how little fabric there was before her fingers touched bare thigh. It wasn’t that she was unused to showing off her legs - in fact, it was something she allowed herself to indulge in on all but the coldest of days - but Ino had whisked away her trusty shorts when she’d tried to shimmy them back on under the sleek black skirt.

“It’s too tight for that, Forehead,” she’d said wickedly, pouring freely for the two of them while she re-styled her hair with the other hand. “You don’t want to have them outlined under the dress, do you? You know that looks terrible.”

Sakura had relented.

The whole thing felt frivolous, and the way she looked made her feel just a touch ridiculous, like a little girl playing dress up next to Ino’s decidedly more over-the-top look. It wasn’t something she’d ever do sober. But Sakura wasn’t mad with Ino, not really: now that it wasn’t wartime, they were stealing the rare opportunities when they presented themselves to be women first, kunoichi second. If that meant bowing to Pig’s indomitable will to squeeze her into a sinfully tight black dress and drag her back to a noisy club before abandoning her to find the latest conquest, then so be it.

Ensconced safely back at the bar with a sensibly non-alcoholic drink, the medic would have been content to let the heaving crowd enjoy themselves behind her had it not been for the sudden presence at her side, standing just a touch too close for it to be a stranger. She watched in the mirror behind the bar, her own face hidden behind the gleaming bottles as Sasuke leaned his elbow on the counter next to her. He couldn’t see her looking from this angle, and he ran his hand through black hair in a rare expression of exasperation. Her lips quirked up as he breathed in deeply, famous eyes sliding shut for an instant. This was as much his scene as it was hers; that was to say, they’d suffer through it for Naruto.

Straightening, he turned to her and inclined his head in greeting. Sakura smiled in response before downing the rest of her lemonade, the sharp sugar tang cutting pleasantly through the taste of alcohol in her mouth.

“Enjoying your party?” she couldn’t help but tease. He simply blinked slowly at her in response, but that was all the answer Sakura needed. Of course he wasn’t. Sasuke didn’t socialise like this - or whatever the equivalent had been when they were twelve - and she knew that it was fast approaching the time when he’d finally deem it acceptable to sneak out the back. Still, she was glad he’d approached.

They hadn’t spoken since the fiasco at the gate and subsequent awkward lunch, and looking at his silent presence Sakura was suddenly incredibly grateful for the liquid courage that chased away the lingering shadow of her younger self. No: this Sakura was older, and wiser, and had saved his life and sent him off with a smile and could talk to him whenever, wherever she wanted to. He didn’t even have to reply (though it would be nice).

She felt quite pleased with herself at the revelation, and so she was unreasonably surprised when Sasuke leaned a little towards her and fired back, “are you?” his voice pitched louder than he liked to speak to be heard above the music. And her mind, a little slow from Ino’s stash, forgot the question briefly in the haze of its delivery.

He was... close. Closer than he had been. At the angle he’d moved to talk it would be very easy to either lean into his chest or pull away to leave space for a kiss; she could feel his warmth so very near her though he wasn’t touching her at all. Sasuke was probably one of the fiercest protectors of his personal space that Sakura had ever known, and yet here he was, invading hers.

Deciding to go with the sane option that it was probably purely to be heard, Sakura leaned forward onto the bar, moving away from him just enough that she couldn’t feel the subtle static of his form. She was suddenly deeply glad she’d let Ino ply her with drinks; three at the bar would not have been enough for whatever this was.

“I’d rather be at work,” she admitted finally, chin in hand as she flashed him a grin.

He nodded in agreement, and then turned to signal the bartender before looking at her over his shoulder.

“Another drink?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow. Sasuke’s gaze was trained directly on her, mismatched eyes concentrated on her response without a hint of any of his avenger’s malice, and Sakura remembered a drunken comment Tsunade had made once about Uchiha and their eye contact . Oh. She suddenly, devastatingly, got it.

Resisting the urge to close her eyes, she replied, “oh, no, Sasuke-kun, it’s your welcome home party. I’ll get you a drink.”

Sasuke huffed in amusement. “I have a tab,” he explained, before ordering a jug of the most expensive sake the place stocked.


His next words would keep her smiling to herself for days.

“It’s Naruto’s tab,” Sasuke clarified, pouring a cup for her before taking his own, a crisp tone of humour in his voice that she hadn’t heard in years. It was exactly the way they used to tease Naruto together, a little poke at his constant (untrue) complaints of poverty, and it was so achingly familiar that Sakura couldn’t help but throw her head back and laugh wickedly.

He didn’t stay with her long; just enough time to finish the sake in companionable almost-silence, punctuated by the halted conversation that a noisy club allowed for. Leaving with  a nod, Sasuke eventually melted back into the crowd just seconds before Ino arrived in a breathless whirl at the bar to drag Sakura to dance.

“Whoa!” The rosy-cheeked blonde exclaimed, eyeing the empty bottle on the bar next to her. “You’ve broken out the piggy bank for today!”

Sakura grinned in response, curling her hand around the cup so that Ino couldn’t see she’d shared it between two. Despite his distaste for these events Sasuke had stayed to drink with her before escaping: that was something she was going to keep to herself.

He was gone, and Naruto would complain overly if she left too, so the kunoichi allowed her friend to drag her onto the dancefloor to spend the rest of the evening. But it might have been the buzz of the sake; she was nearly sure it was her imagination, because as Sakura danced to the small hours with her blonde best friends, she felt warm under the swirling heat of a lone red eye.


There was a certain informality to Kakashi’s Hokage office that Sasuke deeply appreciated. Each ninja sworn into the position brought their personal touches with them and though his former sensei hadn’t been quite brazen enough to bring his bookshelf, there was a relaxed cast to the leafy plants and dog statutes that the previous occupants had lacked. It was one of the few places in the village that Sasuke felt able to relax, more so now that after a fortnight since his return, the ever-present ANBU were slowly but surely losing their wariness around him.

After the first few days, where he’d simply taken up silent residence on the shining leather couch to the side of the room, Kakashi had surprised him with a pen and some paperwork and a quick assurance that there was nothing like free time in the village’s central nervous system.

It was good work. The Uchiha threw himself into the task with his famous concentration and was rewarded with the sight of his… colleagues ’ genuine smiles as his work truly did make a difference to their lives. Shorter hours. Less stress. His crimes seemed nothing to them in the face of his war against their bureaucratic misery. A practical, grounded extension of his redemption; Kakashi was as skilled a manipulator as ever.

Sasuke watched now as his teacher sighed heavily, signing the last page of a lengthy trade document before tossing down his pen. They’d discussed it over the last few days, Kakashi keen to take advantage of Sasuke’s up to date knowledge of the surrounding countries. An open road through Tea Country, which offered extended trade to lands beyond the Fire nation, in exchange for security support from Konoha for Tea’s small military. It was a good deal, but a tricky one, and the Daimyo was only too keen to leave it up to Kakashi and his officers to hash through the details.

“So how was last night?” The Hokage’s voice was curious as he questioned his student over folded hands.

Sasuke snorted. He’d turned up with the slightest hangover and Kakashi had pounced on it, procuring a foul concoction that he whispered came from Sakura before urging the Uchiha to take a sip. It had tasted horrible.

It had also worked.

“Fine,” Sasuke said. “I spent a lot of Naruto’s money.”

“That’s cruel,” Kakashi replied, sounding amused. “It’s not as though you’re short.”

No: despite it all, Sasuke still had the vast wealth of the Uchiha at his disposal.

“ wasn’t just me.” Shuffling his papers, Sasuke made to stand to leave for the day.

“Ah, yes - Sakura-chan looked quite the picture when she briefed me this morning.”

Sasuke couldn’t help it; he shot the older man a dark look over his shoulder as he slotted away the day’s work into the assigned pigeonholes. At rate she’d been drinking, Sasuke wasn’t surprised in the slightest that Sakura had sported a hangover as strong as his. Or worse. But Kakashi rarely spoke so plainly, and Sasuke was deeply aware of what he was saying underneath the underneath: Sakura’s black dress had certainly been quite the picture , as the older ninja put it, amongst a few of the people Naruto had left him with throughout the evening.

Sasuke refused to dwell on it; it was an objective fact that Sakura was considered a beauty these days, no matter what she wore. And so he didn’t dignify Kakashi with a response. Unfortunately, his attention was apparently enough as the Hokage continued,

“I’m glad you spoke to her last night. She’s been asking after you.”

So she’d mentioned it? Sasuke wondered what else the pair talked about: they seemed thick as thieves in a way he hadn’t thought they were before he left. It was a stark reminder of the time he’d missed in Konoha, months journeying measured in the changing relationships between those he’d left behind. Frowning at the wall as he put away his work, the ninja felt Kakashi’s grey stare on his back as he moved around. He was looking for a reaction, but Sasuke wasn’t sure what he wanted; it was simply the way that Naruto, and Kakashi, and sometimes Sakura stared at him like he wasn’t acting how they predicted.  

“I didn’t know she drank,” he supplied instead of responding to Kakashi’s statement.

“Her mentor was Tsunade.”

Fair. Sasuke nodded in understanding, familiar with the former Kage’s legendary reputation as a boozehound. In his travels he’d actually encountered people who complained to him about her, his nominal position as a Konoha ninja ample opportunity to vent their frustrations. If Sakura had picked up the habit… she’d have a lot to catch up on. He thought back to the easy way she’d downed cup after cup of sake, a visible flush on her cheeks as she leaned in to talk to him. No - she wasn’t impervious to alcohol at all. There was a beat of silence, Sasuke caught up in thoughts of his teammate’s tispy grin - before Kakashi looked back to his desk and shifted papers around, looking for something. Assuming the conversation was over, Sasuke started to leave to get some training in before the last light faded, but was stopped by the weary voice of his sensei calling out to him as he turned away.

“Wait, I actually wanted to talk to you, today.”

Sasuke’s steps slowed, coming to a stop beside the larger of the plants beside the couch. He spun on one heel, waiting with silent acknowledgement for the other man to continue.

“What are your… plans?” Kakashi could only mean one thing. “I’ve avoided asking, but are you thinking of staying in Konoha for the foreseeable future?”

Sasuke considered the question seriously. Hand reaching out to subconsciously trail his hand through the leafy fronds of the Konoha fern next to him, he thought about what Kakashi was asking, and what he wasn’t saying at all. The Hokage wasn’t looking for anything concrete if he wasn’t ready to share it. It seemed their original agreement was in place, with Sasuke free to come and go as he pleased and as his journey required. This could be a pit stop on the way to a greater challenge, and for a moment he was tempted to consider the road again, but before the thought took flight Sasuke nodded his head.

“Yes, for now.” And because this wasn’t just his teacher but the leader of the village, the ninja elaborated, “I’ve done a lot of work outside of Fire Country. I think I want to see what I can do here.”

“Great,” Kakashi clapped his hands together, looking genuinely pleased. “I didn’t want to force, but if you’re looking to stay, I’d like to reinstate you as a ninja of Konohagakure.”

Sasuke smirked. “Got a mission in mind?”

“I should be depressed at how well the three of you can read me.” But the silver haired ninja didn’t sound depressed in the least, rifling through his drawer for a sealed scroll. “It’s a Team 7 affair. Read it and let me know in the morning if you’re willing.”

Sasuke caught the tossed scroll with effortless ease, noting the blue ink marking the mission particulars in elegant script on the rolled-up paper. He raised a fine black eyebrow.

“C Rank?”

Kakashi spread his hands in a nonchalant gesture, kicking back his swivel chair to stand up. “Technically you and Naruto are both still genin,” he offered, rounding the rich mahogany desk to come closer to the gently fuming Uchiha.

They both knew rank was meaningless in their case, but Sasuke couldn’t keep the grin from his face at the realisation Naruto hadn’t progressed any further in his absence. He wondered how Sakura was doing; whether or not she’d moved up in the years of his journey. He knew she was chuunin, had been since the war - it wouldn’t be a surprise to him if she’d made jounin in the time since.

“’ll need to get medical clearance to be fully reinstated,” Kakashi was saying now, opening the door with a decisive twist and gesturing for Sasuke to follow. It seemed like training wasn’t to be an option, not if the way the Hokage had took off without waiting. Clearly he was in action mode, something Sasuke had been amused to see of his lazy sensei in the weeks he’d been back in the village. “Would you like me to ask Sakura to do it?”

Sasuke stared at the neatly stitched roku on Kakashi’s back. It had been years since he’d been subjected to a full medical but he remembered the cold discomfort of the experience, the bizarre vulnerability that accompanied the medic’s hands as they poked and pinched and asked invasive questions. He had no doubt Sakura was probably acquainted with his medical info - she seemed to be running the hospital as far as he could see - but he wasn’t keen to have her be the one to actually do the deed.

“No,” he managed, feeling awkward without really knowing why. The secretive smile Kakashi fired him over his shoulder didn’t help.

“I’ll get someone else then, shall I?”

Looking deeply unaffected by the heated glare directed his way, the Hokage simply laughed as he led them towards the intimidating white of Konoha’s hospital.


The sun was blisteringly hot, shining obnoxiously into her face as she leapt from branch to branch.

It was their first mission together since Sasuke’s return and of course Team 7 couldn’t keep it together for longer than it took to leave the gates.

Naruto and Sasuke were united in their firm annoyance at Sai’s appointment as team lead, Sai was in turn annoyed at Naruto and Sasuke because he didn’t understand why they were mad - he outranked them, after all, saviours or not - and Sakura had been unable to get any of them to wear sunscreen.

She endured their bickering for another few miles before coming to a halt against a heavy Fire country oak.

Sasuke noticed first, she clocked, but it was not in his nature to wait for anyone. Sai did next, and it nearly turned into another fight as he reached out and grasped Naruto’s collar to halt his movement.

What?” the blonde squawked, his temper already at a sulky pitch. Sai simply pulled backwards and Naruto swiveled awkwardly, eyes narrowing at his teammate’s continued hold. “I’m not going to fall! ” he barked, wrenching free before squinting at Sakura, a few trees behind.

“What’s up, Sakura-chan? Need a break?”

It was a bit of a sore point between them, that she often felt cooped up in the hospital while he ran for days. It was exactly the wrong thing for him to say. He realised it immediately: there was no distance in the world that would blur the sudden sharp cast to Sakura’s expression.

“Are you curious,” Sakura began in her best I’m-not-annoyed voice, “as to why you’re all a little argumentative today?”

Sai blinked at her a few times; he didn’t understand his emotions all the time, even now, so he looked genuinely invested in what she had to say, if a little confused. Naruto frowned and of course Sasuke was aloof to it all, leaning against the tree closest to hers as though he’d been the picture of solemnity the whole trip instead of glowering at the rest of them.

“Think about the temperature,” she continued. “Are you warm?”

It maybe wasn’t the best opener, because -

“Sakura-chan, what? You know I’m always kind of warm.” Naruto was right: he burned with the furnace of Kurama inside of him and it could be hard for him to separate that from external sources.

Sai held his hand to his forehead curiously. “I suppose I am…” he murmured, but he didn’t sound convinced. As with most Root survivors, Sai was bred to avoid physical discomfort until it reached the extremes.

And Sasuke - Sasuke just looked at her. Sakura stared back a moment, long over the sudden shyness that had afflicted her in the first few days of his return.

The silence stretched on. And on, and on, black and purple staring defiantly into vibrant green.

“I’m asking this as your medic, Sasuke-kun,” she offered through gritted teeth, hand fisting a little more firmly into the lush leaves of her perch. The fact that her nails sunk into the wood like it was butter felt like second nature to her now.

He met her gaze straight on with his head tilted slightly, exposing his Rinnegan as his fringe fell to the side. It might have looked like a non-reaction to people who didn’t know him very well, but the slightest narrowing of his eyes told Sakura he was considering her question. 

“I’m fine,” he eventually replied. Of course: the Uchiha fire burned strong in him.

Sakura nodded briskly, undeterred. “OK, then. You might all feel alright, but this isn’t normal weather for this time of year, and I don’t think anyone packed enough water, am I right?”

There was a pause. Three heads nodded once.

“So,” Sakura drawled, “you’re probably suffering from heat exhaustion.”

Naruto comprehended fastest, the quickest of them to discern anything unpleasant headed his way.

“Ugh, Sakura-chan, I really don’t like sunscreen.”

She’d asked them back at the rendezvous to slather the white cream on, but all three had point blank refused. Naruto’s tanned skin looked impervious to the heat but she could see the redness of the back of his neck, and Sai and Sasuke were paler, if it was possible, than her. Sai simply slid out of her grasp like one of his ink snakes when she’d tried to corral him and Sasuke… she wasn’t quite impervious enough to Sasuke to make a grab for him.

Now here they were, miles later, three burning boys and her left to pick up after their egos. It was, to put it bluntly, too fucking hot for pride.

“Can you just - could someone just-” Sakura stopped, frustrated. “It’s too hot for this. Please put sunscreen on. We’ll travel faster for it. I promise.”

Sasuke crossed his arms and turned his head as much in the opposite direction from her as it would go. It was such an obvious reaction, testament to how much he really didn’t want to do what she’d requested, and it was almost childish in its stubborn execution. Sai stared at her and Naruto’s face was drawn down in a rare frown.

There was a brief moment of silence.

“Follow your own orders,” Sasuke snapped suddenly, voice just a touch churlish. “ You aren’t wearing any.”

How do you know that?

“Sunscreen, Naruto.” The Uchiha clarified when he saw Naruto begin to crow at the innuendo.

What? Sakura wanted to ask, too stunned to be annoyed at Sasuke’s rude deliverance. How can you see that?

“Oh, I don’t need to,” Sakura stated instead, reaching up and tucking a stray strand of damp pink back into her ponytail. Sasuke didn’t look convinced or enlightened, so she explained - “it’s part of my Byakugo .”

At this, Sasuke turned his head in her direction and fixed her with a look that was just short of engaged. Some things never changed; the last Uchiha had always been interested in power.

Sakura edged closer, leaping as near to him as she could get without crowding. “It works like this -” and she passed a careless hand over her forearm, leaving a sprinkling of freckles in her wake - “I essentially have near-complete control over my skin, on a cellular level. That includes things like sun damage, melanin production, exposure… I heal from it all, almost before it happens.”

Passing her thumb back over the path of freckles, they disappeared under Sasuke’s watchful gaze. With a start, Sakura noticed he’d engaged his Sharingan, black tomoe spinning lazily as he watched the chakra push and pull her melanin levels as she pleased.

“Could you do that to someone else?” he asked. He didn’t say anything else, but Sakura could tell he was impressed.

“I could, I suppose,” Sakura surmised. “Though not as easily. And I’m not going to - it’s a waste of chakra. I’d really rather you wear some sunscreen.”

Sasuke heaved a sigh, obviously realising he’d been backed into a corner. But he reached his hand out to her all the same, accepting the small bottle with his particular brand of dignified distaste.

She smiled, warm from a heat more pleasant than the boiling sun above them.


The mission was nothing special, Sasuke had realised fairly quickly into their journey. It was more milk run than dangerous endeavor, and apart from the generous allowance given to them to spend in Tea Country’s famous inns, there was nothing to write home about. Not that he ever had; and besides, aside from Kakashi everyone he’d think to put pen to paper for was here with him.

Sasuke couldn’t say he was disappointed. Tea Country was a beautiful, peaceful place, and the last time he had passed through he’d focused so much on helping the family he was escorting that the natural scenery blended into a background of sleepless nights and gloomy thoughts. The chance to experience it once again was enough to keep him content through the brutal heat.

Surprisingly, the team had gotten along well enough after the shaky start. Whether that was due to Sakura’s undoubtedly ferocious influence or the fact that Naruto had proven himself to be a good diplomat, Sasuke wasn’t sure. The power balance was restored: Sai might have been in charge, but he hadn’t a shred of social grace in his body and that left the talking to Naruto and Sakura.

It was almost a miracle how well it worked.

As for Sasuke’s own pride: he himself had had some decent insights into the discussions, thanks to his work with Kakashi. That, and the fact that he knew more about the surrounding area than any of the ninja he was with.

Now they were headed home, cheekily taking advantage of the last inn before the border and the unspoken rule to push home once in Fire Country territory. None of them had taken much convincing. Ensconced in the two room suite the inn owner had generously bequeathed on them for free - Naruto’s name really got around, apparently - Team 7 were content to take a moment to relax, and Sasuke felt himself breathe more easily than he had in months, maybe years .  

“We’ll have to split up two by two,” Naruto said, interrupting the quiet that had fallen after dinner. “No way is there enough room in one of these rooms for three of us to sleep.”

“Hn.” It was definitely too hot for that.

Sasuke watched as Sakura tipped her head backwards over her shoulders, pink hair spilling in waves down her yukata-clothed back. He half expected her to protest, remembering their genin days where she’d feign indignance at any perceived injustice to her femininity, but she simply shrugged.

“Sure,” she offered, mouth curved in an upside-down smile as she peered at Naruto. “I’ll go with Sai.”

That was surprising. Sasuke flicked his eyes to the fourth member of their team, who was currently leaning against the shoji and painting the twilight scenery. He’d been so sure that Sakura would claim Naruto if forced to choose - he didn’t feel she was still the same girl who’d have taken any opportunity to go with him, but he didn’t expect her to opt for the quietly painting artist. Sai seemed to have nothing but jibes for the medic, a dynamic that outright baffled Sasuke (though he’d never comment on it).

He frowned, feeling eyes on his face, and turned to see Sakura’s verdant green watching his subtle confusion.

“Naruto and I tend to keep each other awake,” she said, explaining with an amused quirk of her lips, her head still thrown backwards as she stretched her legs out in contentment. “At least Sai just paints me in my sleep.”

At this, Sasuke bristled in startled confusion. What? He whipped his head around to see the artist had put down his paintbrush, glaring at their medic over the mystery of his canvas.

“I only did that once, Ugly, and then you told me it wasn’t normal.”

Naruto snorted from his position on the floor. Somehow he’d managed to make the classy room messy with his disheveled robe, empty wrappers and the magazines he’d found in the hallway strewn around him. Typical.

“As long as you don’t do it again, Sai,” Naruto laughed. “I couldn’t believe how many people wanted to - to buy the picture off you once they found out!”

“Oh shut up Naruto, it wasn’t that bad!” Sakura was blushing now.

“It absolutely was - ne, Sasuke, you should have seen it. A total bloodbath!” The blonde ninja laughed to himself as he deftly avoided a kick aimed his way by their teammate. Judging from her angry expression and the purported reaction to it, whatever Sai had painted must have been fairly erotic. Sasuke had seen a few of Sai’s portraits: he could appreciate that it had probably been rendered… faithfully.

He swallowed, saying nothing. Taking a moment to work through his thoughts on the matter, Sasuke watched the familiar exchange with a disinterested expression, finding himself actually fairly curious as to what had happened in the end. He was not going to ask. But the smiling ninja beside him had been observing in his quiet way the subtle plays on the Uchiha’s expression, and at Sasuke’s continued silence - and raised eyebrow - Sai explained,

“I gave it to Tsunade-sama for safekeeping in the end.” He tapped a finger to his chin. “And then I think she lost it in a bet to one of the men from Torture & Interrogation.”

“Yes, thanks, Sai,” Sakura ground out through gritted teeth. “I am still checking shifts so I don’t have to run into him when I go down there.”

Sasuke was vaguely aware that Sakura seemed free to wander anywhere within the village grounds as she pleased, but he perked up at this; T&I wasn’t the kind of place they let most ninja in, pupil to two Hokage or not. If she was called down there then she must have reached jounin at least. The Uchiha wondered if he’d seen a telltale spiral tattoo on her arm over the last few weeks. He couldn’t remember, which likely meant she didn’t have one, but as he looked at her appraisingly she met his eyes and put both hands onto her face.

“Let’s change the subject,” she muttered, holding the apples of her cheeks as though to soothe their crimson glow. “I’m going to take another bath before I turn in for the night - I’ve heard this inn has incredible hotsprings.”

Sai and Naruto both looked uninterested, but Sasuke had taken his customary turn around the grounds when they’d arrived that morning. “Aa,” he started, tilting his head to the east, “there’s two on the outer edges of the grounds, one in the centre.”

Standing up to gather her essentials, Sakura met his eyes and smiled. “Which one is best, Sasuke-kun?” she asked in the soft tone of voice she seemed to reserve for him. As though she was surprised he was speaking to her casually. As though she was completely unaware that she was one of the only people in the world he had any time for speaking to at all.

Sasuke considered her question as she pottered around the room, avoiding the paints Sai had spread out and sending a good-natured kick in Naruto’s direction at his earlier teasing. The two on the outer grounds were pretty enough, carved from the mountain and surrounded by the old trees Tea Country was known for. But the one in the centre had caught his attention, a sulphuric break in the earth that promised near-scalding heat in its rocky cauldron. Maybe Sakura didn’t appreciate the burn of a hot spring as he did, but she could always move on if she didn’t like it.

“Mm, the middle one,” Sasuke offered neutrally. “The natural features are nice.”

Vague, but he was still getting used to sharing his opinions with people who cared for them.

“I’ll go there then,” Sakura said, beaming. “Thanks! I might be a while... so just go to bed if you want.”

And with that, she took off into the gathering dusk, humming tunelessly as she paced down the wooden floorboards. Sasuke lay back on the floor as she left, relishing the fact that there was peace for once. He felt distant amusement at how readily Sakura had taken his opinion, bland as it were, for truth.

It was a good evening, one of the rare ones. Of course it couldn’t last: Sasuke was completely unaware that very soon he’d witness a sight he could later admit signalled when his newfound peace went - as Naruto elegantly put it - completely to shit.