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How Time Has Wilted Us

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The night whispers secrets of all the dreams that filter in from the garden out beyond Sakura’s bedroom. She watches the trees wave desperately, in and out of her window, to a rhythm that lulls her. Her eyes blink heavily between her thoughts, and she pulls the comforter closer to her chin and breathes in. 

It was a quiet evening, with Sasuke gone across the plains. She tries to picture him, his eyes looking down at her, but all she can see is his sword under his palm. He’s been gone for too long. She can barely remember his eyes, and she curses herself for not remembering, doubtfully blaming it on how he hides them behind his chopped up hair. 

Sakura’s mind drifts across Sasuke’s memories as she falls deeper into a night of dreams. 

 

“Do you swear? To protect her?” The queen spoke and Sakura watched as a dark-haired boy bowed his head and answered, the glint of his eye peering out to her. 

“Yes,”

“Don’t be silly Sasuke, Naruto’s only teasing you,” 

“Hmm,”   

“Princess!” 

“His arms are... strong—” 

“Mistress,” he whispered.

“Sasuke!” 

 

“Sasu—” 

“Mistress,” Sasuke’s voice trembles deeper into her thoughts and Sakura rises from her sleep. 

“Hhhh—” She sucks in a breath and her heart leaps from her chest at the sight of him. His eyes penetrate the darkness to meet hers, and she can see the blood on his face. 

“Sasuke!” She says and sits up. The light of the moon gives them minimal vision, but Sakura finds the curves of Sasuke’s face, even so. She caresses his cheek with her thumb, but he backs away when she’s too close and Sakura pulls herself back, her fingers flying to her lips. In the dark is the best, for this to happen, so then he might not see her blush, as she turns away. 

“Excuse me,” He says and bows, 

“But the mission is complete,” 

Sakura sucks in another breath and moves the comforter back from her legs. 

“You need to be treated,” She says and Sasuke stands straight watching as she moves towards her wardrobe in her nightgown. She holds her breath as she moves her sheets around, searching for the first aid kit, but her hands shake and she blinks away a tear. Why is she crying? 

“Princess...” Sasuke’s hand reaches over her shoulder steadying her fingers and slipping under the final bundle for the first aid she keeps.

She sucks in a breath and tries to play it off as him spooking her, but really, he’s just so close, and she can smell him.

“There’s no need for you...” 

“Oh, shut it!” She says and her elbow jabs back into his ribs.

“Hng!” he groans and tilts his head. 

“And stop sneaking up on me,” She whispers. She takes the kit from his hands and holds it close to her chest. She waves a hand at him, telling him to step back and let her pass. 

He bows as she passes him, leading him to her bed motioning for him to sit. She can see him hesitate, the flickering glance to her, the twitch of his thumb across his cloak, but a second later he takes a seat. 

She opens the small box and takes out a tissue dampening it with antiseptic. It soaks up to her fingers and stings the paper cut on her middle. She bites down on her lip as she presses it to Sasuke’s chin.  

“hhSss,” Sasuke hisses. He turns his chin from her. His hand takes hold of her wrist and she can feel how his fingers dig into her skin but she holds still. She holds her breath. Then her lungs deflate as she lets out the breath through her nose. Sasuke doesn’t look at her as his grip loosens and drops.

She waits for a moment to pass before moving again until the crickets chirp seven times to say it’s alright.  

“Hold still...” She whispers, and he nods, and she presses the wet tissue to his skin again. His cheek twitches and his eyes close sucking in a sharp breath between his teeth. But Sakura continues, rubbing and patting away the blood and cuts on his lip and eyebrow. With each dab of her hand, she takes a small step closer to Sasuke, and in moments she’s standing between his knees, close enough that she can hear him breathing, shallow and tired. 

When he’s gotten used to the pain, and he’s opened his eyes again Sakura lets her other hand drift up to his forehead, brushing away the strands of hair that stick to it. 

“I—” she breathes. But when Sasuke’s eyes meet hers, she freezes. His eyes droop with exhaustion, and she’s tempted to wrap her arms around his shoulders, to press his face into her chest so that he can hear, how desperate her heart feels. 

“I, um—” He’s still watching her like he does. Like every word is something he must taste before responding. 

“I missed you.” She tilts her nose in the air and punctuates her sentence with what she hopes is an expressionless face. She attempts to speak with the dignity that a princess should hold, but she can feel her face, her eyes, betray her. And she can read in Sasuke’s solum black eyes, that he too can see right through her facade. 

“Was it dangerous, your mission?” she continues when he makes no response. And he blinks with the smallest nod, in confirmation. But his lips don’t part to speak, and Sakura stares at them, begging inside herself for them to part so she can hear his voice.  

“Say something... Sasuke,” She whispers and her fingers find his cheek again, tilting his face to look at her more. His lips part and Sakura takes another step closer, aware that they’re too close for Princess, and Knight. 

“You look so beautiful, in this moonlight,” He whispers. Sakura pauses, her palm lifts and the tips of her fingers brushing the curve of his ear. She blinks a few times, her body shaken by the words that have fallen out of Sasuke’s mouth. Beautiful. She had heard him whisper the word a few times, but to say it so boldly— for those to be the words she hears after so many weeks. 

Sasuke’s fingers just brush the fabric of her nightgown holding it. And as she takes a step back he lets her go and she becomes terribly aware of their absence at her thigh. She smiles. She sucks in a breath and lets her fingers escape from Sasuke’s touch. She brushes the hair back from her face. Her cheeks are warm and her heart, well she can barely feel it how light it feels.

“Yes, well, as a Princess does,” She says, and her eyebrows twitch, her words not making any sense even to her. She looks away from Sasuke, hiding her blush in the darkness that consumes all of their thoughts.  

She takes another step back, shaking her head and Sasuke stands, looking down at her. 

“I um—” She whispers, 

“Forgive me, Princess,” Sasuke whispers and bows his head, his eyes closed until she speaks again. 

“It’s fine, Sasuke,” She whispers and again her hand finds his cheek and he raises to his full height backing away from her. 

“Thank you,” he whispers and Sakura nods, letting her hand curl into rest against her chest. 

“I should be going to bed,” She whispers but can't pull her eyes away from Sasuke’s, for even in the darkest nights they glow with some kind of secret Sakura has always wished to know. 

“Yes,” He says and bows once more before brushing past her to her door. 

“Sasuke!” She calls and turns as he passes, 

“Tomorrow, there will be suitors here, for a banquet, so we’re expected to be dressed early,” She says, and clutches the frilly collar of her gown as she remembers the many men she’s supposed to meet. 

“So be here, just after noon,” She orders and Sasuke nods, his lips empty again. 

Sakura follows Sasuke to the door, holding tight to the handle as he steps over the threshold of her room into the hallway.

She’s about to say another word when he surprises her,

“Happy—” 

“No!” she says and he stops between words, his mouth full of the rest of his sentence. 

“Not until the sunrises...” She whispers, and glances down at his feet, standing in her doorway. 

“And the cherry blossoms have bloomed.” He whispers back. 

When Sakura looks up her heart shakes and she can almost swear she caught a glimpse of the rarest smile on Sasuke’s lips. But before she can say anything more Sasuke bows, his head at her breast level, and she wonders if even from this distance, if he can hear how loud her heart beats. 

“Goodnight, Princess,” Sasuke whispers, and Sakura swallows her thoughts and bated breath and bows her head, 

“Goodnight, Sasuke,” She whispers and closes the door with her words, watching as his figure disappears behind it, and listens for his footsteps walking away. She slides down the door and presses the back of her head to the wood pulling in all the air she can into her lungs.

“Oh... Sasuke...” She breathes and lets her eyes drift closed again, still curled on the floor. 

 

 * * *

 

The clinking of breakfast forks wakes Sakura for the second time that morning. Her eyes flutter open and watch Sasuke’s hands move across her pillow. 

“Sasuke...?” She mutters and pulls the blankets tighter to her chest, rolling onto her side. The mornings are always filled with an icy chill she hates to embrace so she takes her time waking up. But once her eyes are open, they hurt to stay closed, and she’s stuck staring at the billowing sheets of the canopy above her bed. 

She sighs and rubs her eyes. She pats the sheets around her, looking at the white spread of the blankets. 

“I found you at the door early this morning, so I put you in your bed,” Sasuke whispers and his eyes don’t meet hers but Sakura can still see the tint of pink on his cheeks. It flashes through Sakura’s head, how he must have carried her, and she feels her own cheeks brighten with flustered warmth. 

“Oh, well... um... yes, oh,” Sakura says and she pats the comforter in her lap, unsure what to do with her hands, or words, or thoughts, her mind... empty. 

“The maids brought your breakfast,” Sasuke says and picks up the tray, placing it in her lap, changing the subjects. A bowl of oats sits on the tray with a flower next to the spoon and fork for the fruit.   

“They also said they will return in an hour for your bath,” Sasuke whispers and Sakura is the one who avoids his eyes this time. 

“Yes, very well, thank you” She whispers and Sasuke turns to leave. Sakura’s tongue catches on the edge of her teeth, unable to form a word to stop him from going so she watches as he enters the garden and disappears. 

She stares out the open doors into the garden where he had stood, next to the rose bushes. The roses look different than usual, and she notices the leaves on the ground, the thorns chopped off. A rose has been plucked. 

She looks down at her tray, next to the spoon and fork, to the pink rose sitting freshly cut and pruned. She picks up the rose and presses it to her nose, brushing the soft petals along her lips to taste its beauty. She falls back onto her pillow holding the rose to her chest and remembers how they were as children. How Sasuke took a full month to speak to her. How she had to coax him to play with her. And, how he used to cut roses from the garden for her until she asked him to stop. It had been ages since he had offered her a rose, but it had been even longer since they could speak without fumbling for the right words. 

“How age has wilted us, how maturity has changed the color of our petals in each other's eyes,” She whispers and twirls the rose between her fingers. 

“Oh, Sasuke...” 

The knock on her door sends her jumping out of her thoughts and she spoons a couple bites of warm oats into her mouth as she steps out of bed. The knocking comes again until she opens the door and a young woman stands behind it, holding towels to her chest. 

“Good morning, milady, I’ve come to give you a bath,” She says and bows. 

“Oh yes, of course,” Sakura says and opens the door for her to enter. Several other women enter the room with her as Sakura returns to her oats, picking up the flower once more. 

She eats the oats until they’re cold and then abandons them for the fruit. Sakura holds the small bowl to her mouth poking the balls of melon and pieces of tangerines while walking in the garden, the sound of the running bath water whispering in the background.

The garden is bright with the midmorning light over the green hedges. Sakura digs her toes into the sand of the rock garden disturbing the line patterns weaved between the rocks. In the distance, the sound to clinking blades catches her attention, and she looks up to see Sasuke sparing with their blonde friend on the roof next to hers. 

“Hey,” Naruto shouts as he bends back to avoid Sasuke’s blade, 

“No fair,” 

“All is fair,” Sasuke says and Sakura can hear the smirk on his lips as his voice echoes lightly in the gardens. The hop and switch places, avoiding each other's blades, balancing on the roofs. 

Sasuke’s eyes glance down at Sakura, in her robe, and in a second he loses his balance, the smile on his lips falling and Naruto overpowering him. Sakura gasps as he trips over his feet and she can hear the thud as he falls back onto the roofing tiles. 

“Ha!” Naruto shouts, but Sasuke isn’t looking at him. 

Sakura tries to hold back the giggle bubbling up in the back of her throat, covering her mouth with her sleeve, but her eyes are still stuck to Sasuke’s. 

Naruto looks over his shoulder following Sasuke’s distracted eyes to Sakura standing in the garden. When he sees her his shoulder straighten out and he bows, not realizing who had been watching. 

“Good morning” Sakura whispers as if they could hear her and she bows back. 

Sasuke bows his head as well, but his eyes don’t convey the respect and loyalty Naruto’s do, but something else, something... warmer. 

“Milady,” The maid calls and Sakura’s forced to look away,

“The bath is ready,” She says and Sakura nods glancing back at the boys as she follows the maid back into the house. She hears them laugh, the whisper of their joys cascading over her and she feels her heart thumb inside her chest.  

The women strip Sakura of her robes and guide her into the tub, letting her settle in the hot water up to her chest. She lays her head back and places her hands to the sides so they may clean her nails and hair. They scrape and clip and cut at her until she’s what the queen demands and Sakura simply lays boiling, naked, in the tub. 

She’s always enjoyed it when they clean and comb her long hair, the pink locks draping down to her thighs, and the sound of the scissors almost send her into a panic. But she knows they’re acting on the queen's orders and doesn’t raise a word against them. Her head already lighter, the damage already done. 

Her skin burns by the time they’re finished, and they leave her to soak, laying out her kimono for the evening next to a small meal at her dressing table. When the door clicks shut and she’s left alone, she curls in the tub. She pulls her knees to her chest and feels her hair move about her cheeks, the weight of her beauty disappearing with it. The nape of her neck feels cold, as the wind from the garden kisses it. 

Sweat streams down her temple and curves into her cheek, mingling with the tears that fall from her eyes. She tries to blink them away, but only more come. Her body feels exhausted and heavy with the heat, she can barely breathe. She needs to get out. 

She pushes on the sides of the tub onto her feet, her body shaking. She climbs over the edge and leans on the chair her robe is draped over, pulling the fabric over her limbs, the silk clinging to her, sticking to the water on her skin. She tries to breath slowly stumbling out of the room into the fresh cool air of her bedroom seeping into her lungs. She takes in as much air as she can but her body goes limp as soon as she does and she tilts into the doorframe. She stumbles and then cool arms are pressing into her waist. 

“Huuh,” She gasps shaking her head as she leans into the body beside her. Sasuke looks down at her, his arm wrapped around her waist pressing her to him. Sakura blinks and feels her body grow even hotter, against his layered kimono. She presses a hand against his chest trying to separate herself, 

“I’m okay,” she whispers, 

“Just overheater...” She tries to take a step but her body weighs down against her will and Sasuke is there again, hands pulling up on her body pressing against her like a pillar. 

“I—” She tries to speak but Sasuke doesn’t give her a second before he scoops her up against his chest, cradling her like a child. Her fingers clutch to the silk of his kimono collar as he carries her, only a few feet to her dressing table, where her own kimono is draped and sets her down on the small stool. 

“Could you—” She starts, but he’s already pouring her water, moving the glass closer as she tries to take deep breaths, her skin finally cooling off. When she finishes she notices Sasuke’s stance faced away and waiting for any order. 

“Forgive me miss, for intruding,” He says and Sakura looks down. Her cheeks bloom in a rush of pink as she tightens the robe over her breasts the fabric having fallen and exposing her. 

“Of course, thank, for your help,” She whispers and clasps her hands to her chest. 

“You, um, you can turn around now, Sasuke,” She whispers and fumbles with the handle of her comb on the table lifting it to her head. But when she reaches to brush out the wet locks of pink looking at her reflection, she’s taken back. The hair reaches down just past her jawline floating above her shoulders, weightless. She had forgotten. She touches the ends of her fingers to ends of the hair crisply cut. Her eyes drift to Sasuke’s in the mirror watching her from behind. Does he like it? She wonders, but the thought is fleeting as she averts her eyes, unable to hold his gaze in the assumption that he doesn’t. 

She combs out her hair, straight and shining in the afternoon sun, dry and soft by the time she’s finished. Sasuke’s moved to his usual spot by the garden door, his hand placed on the edge of his katana, palming it. She can feel him glance at her from moment to moment, when a sound in the garden hasn’t caught his attention, between the seconds of his thoughts, and Sakura imagines what he could be thinking about her. 

“Come, help me dress,” She says and he stands as she unties her robe. 

He picks up the Kimono, the soft silk held like the petals of a rose between his fingers and holds it out for her. She lets her robe drop and Sasuke slides the Kimono sleeves over her arms and shoulders and she pulls the fabric across her chest covering herself. 

“Thank you,” She whispers. Sasuke is there when she turns, face one a few centimeters from hers. She can smell the soap to wash his hair. 

“They cut your hair,” He whispers and takes a step back. Sakura swallows her blush and flustered thoughts and nods. 

“Do you—” she starts but her lips can’t grasp the question so she changes it. 

“It’s terrible, really,” She says and her fingers again find the tips of her hair. But Sasuke shakes his head. He takes a step towards her, correcting his action.       

“Nonsense,” He brushes the hair behind her ear. He picks up the flower from her dressing table and sticks it behind her ear.  

“You’re beautiful.” He whispers, and Sakura balls her hand into a fist and tries to ignore her heart stuttering in her chest. A thousand tiny butterflies flutter in and out of her chest and muddle up all her thoughts. She can smell his soap again, brisque like a spring morning.  

“Uh, mh—” She trips over words and Sasuke steps away leaving her grasping at blossom petals in the wind. 

“Sasu—um” She can’t wrap her tongue around a single word, no thoughts even formed in her head. But Sasuke waits, his hand on his katana again. She holds her breath for a moment, swimming in his eyes for the courage he’s always given her. 

“Would it be wrong—” She whispers, 

“For me to ask you to kiss me?” her words leave her lips in such a whisper she thinks he may not have heard her, but in a moment, she knows he did. 

Sasuke takes a step forward, then pauses. Sakura holds her breath and he takes another step. Then a few more.  

Sasuke’s fingers trace the curves of Sakura’s jaw as he pulls her lip to his. She feels her lips melt into his, how easily they fit between hers, soft and firm and warm. The kiss doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe, only holds steady in the silence of the room for what feels like a beautiful eternity. And Sakura wishes she could trade an infinite amount of moments for this one to last a single moment more. 

Her breath is shaking when he pulls away, and her eyes open, she hadn’t even realized she had closed them. His hands don’t leave her cheeks, and their eyes search equally for any response to what they just shared. Sasuke swallows a breath, and a response forms on his wet lips. 

“A kiss from you could never be wrong to me.” He says and Sakura reaches out for the fabric between them, pulling him back into another kiss. She closes her eyes and lets herself feel every bit of his touch, as his hands slide from her cheeks to her waist and pull her closer, deeper against him. 

The kiss lasts only a second more than the first, as the taste of salt drips onto their lips and Sakura pulls away, her fingers reaching up to her cheeks. She’s crying. 

“I’m sorry,” she says and Sakura lets go of him, backing away and pulling her kimono tighter around her. 

“I’m not,” Sasuke whispers and Sakura feels her heart dip. She sucks in a breath and the tears fall faster down her cheeks.

“Shhh,” Sasuke reaches up and wipes away the tears with his thumb, and she leans into his touch. 

“Will you be by my side tonight?” She asks, and looks into his eyes, pulling her forward to fall into them. 

“Tonight, and every night and day after, milady,” He says and she smiles, holding her breath in the thought of what she must choose tonight. But with her knight by her side—

“Sakura,” He whispers, and Sakura’s surprised he spoke her name, the sound sweet in the air.