When approaching a trauma scene there are guidelines and priorities to be followed and even though Sakura can barely hear Tsunade's iron voice grinding away over the frantic scuff of her own feet on the ground, she's been trained to the point where her limbs are not her own. So even though she just wants to fall to her knees and burst into tears and maybe laugh a bit and maybe celebrate this new stillness at the heart of everything -- home, home, home -- she finds herself cataloging visible wounds and vital signs and pulling her gloves off, like a puppet whose strings are held by an impersonal force.
Naruto, though, Naruto's so out of it that he tries to feel both of Sasuke's carotid pulses at once, and Sakura yanks one of his hands away before he cuts off the blood supply to the brain and Sasuke actually dies, because wouldn't that just be the perfect fucking irony right now.
"He's not --"
"He's not dead." She can see his chest rising and falling in a slow, shallow rhythm, but she holds a kunai in front of his lips anyway and lifts it to show Naruto the fogged surface. "Now shut up and let me work."
Blood and chakra spilling out all over the place. It's nothing she hasn't seen before, but she almost recoils after the first moment, the first touch of her bare hands against his chest -- Sasuke, gods -- before the automata seizes her limbs again.
"Done," she says finally. "That's all I can do for now."
Sasuke opens his eyes and he's smiling, but not at them. "Done." It doesn't sound like an echo. It sounds like a prayer. There's blood all over his face.
"You fucking asshole," Naruto says.
Sakura's hands move from wound to wound as though on strings. Sasuke makes a noise that isn't quite pain and Naruto's head jerks in response and Sakura is a perfect marionette trussed between the two of them, as ever.
After the first shock of remembering that there there used to be other people in their direct vicinity -- Naruto meets Sakura's eyes and they share their awakening as the outside world filters through -- there is the second shock, which is that these people have disappeared.
"Taking the news," Kakashi says, not looking at them. "I assume you'll be wanting us to make our way home at a slower pace, Sasuke."
Which is a loaded sentence if Sakura ever heard one, full of sharp meaningful words like us and home, and Kakashi's unique knack for turning his most important orders into casual assumptions. Sasuke doesn't answer outright, but he refuses Sakura's hand and pulls himself onto his feet, his face tight with strain. He looks around them, surveying the inorganic carnage, and Sakura catches a flash of exhausted sorrow before he turns his normal closed expression onto their teacher.
"I can manage on my own."
It sounds like a test, and -- sure enough -- Naruto leaps in as though there's a lifetime supply of ramen riding on the answer.
"Not a chance." He squares his shoulders and sets his mouth. Naruto has a wide repertoire of stubbornness, and this is a version that neither floods nor hurricanes can budge; Sakura knows it and she knows that Sasuke knows it just as well, if not better. "We're your team. We're sticking with you."
There's only a fraction of a pause before Sasuke says, "Fine," and starts to make his way towards a slightly lower piece of broken rock, but in that pause his stance becomes a little more relaxed, and Sakura thinks that maybe things aren't completely hopeless after all. But then, this is a celebration. She can think about all that they've gained, after so long. She can kick up dust as they move out and smile at Sai and identify the uncertainty in his mirroring expression, in full knowledge of her hypocrisy; everyone needs to fake their smiles sometimes.
All right: not everyone.
Naruto's face breaks periodically into joyous amazement, the heat of it blazing through his concern. He smiles at his own feet and at Sakura and Sai and at the way Sasuke strikes out like a snake if anyone tries to touch him, glaring fire and ice if they suggest that he could be transported back to the village on anything but his own two feet. The only person who refuses to give up after the first barrage of insults is, of course, Naruto, who hovers just out of reach and lunges in whenever Sasuke's legs give way. This inevitably leads to five minutes of quiet argument, Sasuke's arm taut with annoyance around Naruto's shoulder, until he gathers himself enough to shove the blond away again.
And repeat, and repeat. Even Sai stops looking interested after the first four times this happens, and strides on ahead. Sakura is glad for the slow pace, and takes deep breaths as she walks, trying to sort her feelings out in this brief window where nothing is expected of her.
Kakashi falls into step with her like a tall ghost and she fights her face into calm, but he just scans their surroundings and doesn't speak to her for almost ten minutes. When he does, his voice is neutral.
"If you want to talk..."
She looks up at him, surprised; it takes her a moment to consider and discard the possibility of bluffing it out, and before she can think of a way to voice her gratitude, Kakashi's eye creases in that way he has of turning his face into glass. If Sasuke's hair is a duck's back then Kakashi's expressions are even more so: everything rolls off.
"...then I suggest you talk to Sai," he finishes.
Sakura tenses against the internal whip of betrayal, and her mind whirls in an effort to work out which way it should be leaning in the midst of all these about-faces, but after a moment it clicks and she finds herself meeting Kakashi's gaze with something that isn't a smile, but is at least comfortable.
"Because he's going to need it just as badly, isn't he."
Kakashi's eye creases even further and then opens again, his expression approving and gratifyingly opaque. "Good girl," he says, and rests his hand on her upper back for a moment. "You know how Naruto is. Give it time."
"Give it time," Sakura echoes, mostly to herself.
She thinks, as hard as she can, this is what we wanted.
But we is just another way of saying us and no matter which way you look at it, the word is dangerous. Sooner or later they're going to have to split the preposition, rebuild it to accommodate a third party, and Sakura has no idea what they will end up wanting when the dust settles and the glue dries.
She thinks, this is what I wanted.
Sasuke says something and Naruto laughs, bright and thoughtless.
Summer rises up awkwardly and elbows the clouds away, dribbling sunlight in their place until it gets so that you step outside and the air sticks to your skin. Sasuke, like the heat, is a novel addition and a conversation point right up until the day when everyone gets used to him again; then it's like he's always been meeting the rest of his team for missions, buying groceries like a normal person, sitting on a stool ignoring Naruto's latest enthusiastic ramblings and twisting ramen out of a bowl with neat, disinterested movements of his wrist. There are mornings when Sakura wakes up feeling like the years have been wiped away with the clouds; her heartache and Naruto's anger and their fragile, ductile hope seem just as illusory as the idea of being cold, of being poisoned, of being stabbed through the gut. The body has no memory of pain.
But she has a stronger grasp on her personal logic than that. She'll keep the peace for Naruto's sake, pretend that the homeostasis of what passed for friendship is enough to keep them balanced, swallow the past, but feelings are not thoughts and she hasn't forgotten.
A long pause. Sakura realises abruptly what Sasuke must have realised the moment before, which is that this is the first time they've been alone together in all the months since he came back.
So when Sasuke says, awkwardly self-aware: "I'm meeting Kakashi later to train -- I forgot -- tell the others not to wait for me at dinner --" she is not entirely surprised at the sharpness of her disappointment.
"Silly me," she says. "For a moment there I thought you were actually going to apologise."
He doesn't pretend anything, doesn't say apologise for what, which is one of many reasons why she can't be as angry at him as she'd like.
What he says is, "I thought you knew me better than that."
"I'm an optimist," she snaps. "Never mind."
"So," he says then. "You and Naruto."
She almost manages to hide the flinch. "Yes." It would be so easy just to leave it there, wait for his assumptions to flood in and fill the gap, but it's a flimsy fallacy and she's got more pride than that. "But not...Naruto and me."
"Perhaps." He gives a tiny shrug.
Sakura opens her mouth to ask him what he means; to her horror, what comes out instead is: "Don't make him choose, Sasuke. He'll choose you."
Sasuke blinks. Again, there's a short silence into which a pretence could fit neatly, should he choose to voice it. But he doesn't.
"Why would he do that?"
She stares at him, taken aback. "You -- you're blind. You and your all-powerful Sharingan and you're blind if you haven't worked out that Naruto would follow you anywhere -- has followed you anywhere --"
For a moment she's afraid that Sasuke is really so clueless that he's going to ask her why Naruto would have to make a choice -- boys, honestly -- and she's going to have to explain that despite everything, despite teamwork and family and friendships and all of those useful ideas, everyone chooses sooner or later. But he doesn't say a word, he just looks at her; actually looks her up and down, close and intent in a way that he has never, ever looked at her before, and Sakura feels colour coming to her cheeks. She almost steps back when he walks up to her, almost falls back on her training and dodges, but manages not to.
Sasuke stops a pace away and lifts one of his hands to lie flat on top of her head like a measuring board.
"Look at you, Sakura," he says mockingly. "All grown up."
"Don't patronise me, you ass," she snaps. "I'm four months older than you."
Sasuke gives one of the smirks she remembers, the cruel lifting of lips that doesn't come anywhere near his eyes, and leans forward until he's almost closed the distance between their faces. Then he stops. Sakura holds herself steady -- can't hold his gaze, he's too close, and she's damned if she'll look away -- and focuses on a point on his forehead instead, feeling silly.
At the bottom of her peripheral vision the smirk twitches. "Don't you want to kiss me, Sakura?" He doesn't sound as though he cares about the answer one way or another. His hand falls back to his side, leaving her hair a little mussed.
She will not step back. But she lifts a hand of her own and lays her fingers against his lips and thinks about how close he is, and how his skin is just that little bit darker than Sai's but still very pale, and how for years and years of her childhood he could make her stomach squirm just by standing nearby.
It's not enough.
"I thought you were a good person," she says, pulling her fingers away. "For such a long time. I thought that you could do nothing wrong. And then you hurt me so badly that for a while I thought that you were a terrible person."
She shrugs. "There's good and bad in you, just like in everyone; it's just another way of saying that you're human. But the thing is that I might never have started believing in the good parts of you again if Naruto hadn't been so damn convinced of them."
Finally, he moves backwards. "Naruto."
And they're back where they started; where they're always going to end up, really, because they're a closed system of pulleys and pendulums and their centre of gravity has bright blue eyes and an obnoxious smile. Because she can't think of anything else to say, Sakura says, "Everyone chooses sooner or later."
"But you don't want him to."
She shakes her head.
For the first time, Sasuke's expression changes in such a way that she thinks he might be starting to take her seriously. "So do you have a plan?"
"Well. I know you're the king of acting like you don't give a shit about anything or anyone around you, Uchiha Sasuke, but are you actually going to stand there and tell me that you're prepared to bow out?" He hasn't got the market cornered when it comes to thin smiles; Sakura puts her hands on her hips and throws hers at him. "That would make the problem go away, after all."
She's been proud of all sorts of things since Sasuke left Konoha, proud of her progress and her victories, but something about the way his face ripples and then cracks into a strange, guileless need makes her glow with a sense of unparalleled achievement.
"No." Very short, very sharp, and he looks as though he'd rather be doing anything but opening up to her even this small amount. "Another plan."
"I don't know. Compromise." She lifts her chin and watches him. "Teamwork."
This pause is long, long, longer, and then Sasuke laughs; the sound sends shivers down her arms, a feeling that is almost -- but not quite -- entirely unpleasant. "Do you want to kiss me?" he asks again.
"I don't know," Sakura says with complete honesty. "Ask me again in a month."
He doesn't. He waits seven months.
"Oh, fuck off," Sakura tells him.
"So that's a no?"
Sasuke pauses for a moment, then pulls the ends of his headband tight and flicks them into a knot. His jounin vest rides up oddly with the motion, not yet looking quite as much a second skin as everything else he wears.
"You're lying," he says after a while, not even looking at her, but she knows him quite well and she's pretty sure he's bluffing.
Sakura presses her lips together so hard she starts to bite into them, and wishes for the millionth time that this strange cold war of theirs was being fought over a less oblivious target. Everyone knows that Sasuke grew up long before his time, and she should probably thank him for catalysing her own flurry of emotional maturation, but Naruto is -- as ever -- untouched and unaware of his own power, unaware of what it means when he swipes his lengthening hair out of his cloudless-sky eyes and grins like a fox. Part of her never wants him to grow up. Part of her wants to rip his clothes off. All of her wishes that life with these boys would just, for once, be easy.
"Don't worry, Sasuke, I'm not in love with you. And I know damn well you've never cared about me."
Sasuke makes one of those soft, almost amused, entirely dismissive sounds. "That's another lie."
"What do you mean? Which part of it?"
She hates the way he smiles sometimes, like it’s just another justu with which to slice through people. Not even Sai smiles with such studied, merciless grace.
"All of it."
Give it time, Kakashi said, but after the fact Sakura will be quite sure that neither she nor Sasuke was prepared for how much time they would have to give.
"Four." Sai chimes in with perfect timing, his murmured tally such a close echo of Naruto's peevish tone that Sakura bites her lip to suppress her laughter.
"And it's not even noon." She casts a look up through the laced forest canopy to a sky that is the exact same shade as Naruto's eyes when he's excited, a bruising and radiant blue. "This could be a long day."
"Again," comes Kakashi's voice from high above them. "Sai, you're out."
Sai flicks his brush around two fingers and nods as he steps away from her side. Sakura sighs and shakes the worst of the tension out of her limbs, envying him the opportunity to rest in the shade playing at incapacitation or death; they've been a four-man team for nigh on a year now, and Kakashi likes to run them through these morbid exercises every so often, usually when it's pouring down rain or scorchingly hot.
The first clone comes at her before she's ready, catching her balanced on one foot with the other tucked up behind, stretching out her quadriceps, and she swears under her breath as she falls swiftly sideways and comes up with her hands bristling with weapons. A twig snaps to her left and her arm flicks out before she can quite register the fact that Sasuke is not where he should be, having moved closer -- too close -- when he saw her fall to the ground. Fuck. When is he going to learn that she can take care of herself?
She hears, because she's listening for it, the soft gratifying thud thud thud of metal embedding itself in a wooden illusion. The log falls to the ground and Sakura spins to glare at Sasuke.
"Be careful," she snaps at him.
Sasuke runs his fingers over the shallow cut on his neck, and his expression moves from faint surprise into that irritating knife of a smile. He directs it at Sakura and then moves it to Naruto, and there's nothing new about that. But all of a sudden Naruto makes a low sound that doesn't sound attractive at all, just confused, and Sakura's world comes to an abrupt horrible halt because even though most of her has been expecting this for a long time...it would have to be Sasuke, wouldn't it?
Sasuke, who presses his lips together in an expression that Sakura doesn't quite recognise, and then shifts his weight from one foot to the other -- then back -- as though his body has walked into a room and is now trying to remember its reason for doing so.
For his part, Naruto blinks several times in a row and then his eyes fly wide, almost comically so, like two blue saucers tossed high and spinning side-by-side in the air. He stares at Sasuke and Sasuke stares back, and now Sakura wonders how she missed the meaning of the Uchiha's expression, because it's a challenge, and Naruto -- well, everyone knows Naruto and challenges, Naruto and Sasuke and challenges --
Sai's hand on her arm almost makes her yell with surprise.
"What is it?" he says. "What's going on?"
She can't answer. She thinks, calm and clear as a bell, I can't deal with this, and she carefully gathers her weapons and counts them before stashing them in her pouch, and then she turns her back on Naruto's eyes and the way his whole posture now seems to have been rocked by realisation. Like he's been given an electric shock, Sakura thinks sourly, and it's so stupid and ironic and not even funny that she almost bursts into tears.
For some reason everyone seems to find it amusing: Uzumaki Naruto has finally discovered that he does, in fact, possess a sex drive.
Oh, yes, it's hilarious.
"I don't think it's funny," Sai tells her.
"Right." Sakura buries her head in her knees and doesn't sigh. "Thank you."
Sai's room does not look like an artist's room should, but there's something comforting in the complete absence of chaos. He uses one sheet of paper at a time, each single artwork taking careful predictable shape under his hands.
Sakura says, "It's not fair. He -- for years he wan't even there."
Sai says, "It should have been you," and there's nothing in his voice, no judgement, and Sakura suddenly feels sick.
"And what the fuck do you know?" she yells, leaping to her feet. "You're just saying what you think I want to hear, that's not what friends do, that's not what I need."
"I thought," and Sai stops. His fingertips are white against his brush; she's been trained to notice these things; in any other context she'd be expecting an attack, but not from Sai -- oh, no, not Sai.
She's a terrible person sometimes.
She walked into this room wanting exactly what Sai is providing, wanting someone to recognise that maybe she has the right to be upset about this, but now he's turning back to his painting and the whole thing seems small. Small and ridiculous. There are battles to be fought and people to mourn and Haruno Sakura is sulking because her best friend has chosen his best friend to focus his belated adolescent longings on, and this is not what Kakashi expected from her when he told her to talk to Sai.
The thought of Kakashi sends shame rushing up to her cheeks.
"I'm. Gods, I'm sorry," and to her dismay she starts to cry, right there on the floor of Sai's stupid tidy apartment.
Sai sets down his paints. "What's the matter?" he asks, as though the rest of the conversation never took place. The body doesn't remember pain and sometimes Sakura thinks that Sai's mind doesn't remember either, doesn't keep track of context like most people's do, so that each new sentence must be reacted to in isolation, as though someone has simply stopped him on the street and blurted it out.
What's the matter?
The matter is that she knows exactly what there is to love about Sasuke, exactly what there is to react to in his appearance.
"It's nothing. It's -- stupid. I should know better," comes out in a rush.
"You're in love with Naruto?"
"No -- yes."
Now that she thinks about it, she's never admitted it aloud. It was easier to reframe it as sex: Naruto reacting to Sasuke's smile, the hot uncomplicated jerk of her own jealousy. She doesn't want it to be about love. Love seems simultaneously too childish and too adult, and far, far too difficult to navigate.
Sai sits down next to her, picks up one of her hands and presses it. She smiles at him, surprised at the amount of comfort she draws from the simple gesture, and wishes for a chaotic moment that she could take a blade and slice one of them out of this equally chaotic triangle, because Sai deserves better than to watch them implode.
"Maybe you should tell him," he suggests. "It seems to me that you cannot expect him to choose you if he doesn't know that you are a choice."
"Don't be an idiot, Sai," Sakura says, but she swipes her other hand across her eyes and feels slightly better.
What would Naruto do?
That one, at least, is easy: fight back.
"Do you have any advice?"
"Well," Tsunade begins, and then stops, looking nonplussed. "I don't. I mean, I've never really --"
Sakura drops her gaze from her teacher's face -- drops it a little further --
"Oh," she says, heart sinking.
"Use what you've got, Sakura."
Sakura tries not to squirm within her clothing. "Which would be?"
"Legs," Shizune puts in, looking up from her paperwork and eyeing her critically. "Legs and hair."
"Thank you?" Sakura hazards.
"Sakura," Tsunade says, as she's leaving.
The Hokage looks up and fixes her with a familiar, too-knowing look. "And the Uchiha?"
"I'm over him." She bites her tongue against the urge to repeat it even more emphatically. "You know that."
"Hmm." Tsunade doesn't smile. "It's easy to be over someone when they're not around, isn't it?"
"You can go, Sakura."
Of course, she feels screamingly stupid the first few times she puts conscious effort into it, but it doesn't seem to matter: either she's a natural flirt, or Naruto's newfound sexuality will leap at pretty much anything. The first time he crashes into a treebranch because he's too busy staring at her legs, Sakura is so pleased that she hums to herself as she heals the gash on his head.
Now it's Naruto who's the puppet: Sasuke tugs one way and Sakura tugs the other and their teammate tangles himself into helpless knots trying to reconcile his own desires. Sasuke has two advantages: the first is that Sakura herself is not immune to his tugging. The second is that Sakura is a nice person, and after a while spent watching Naruto's confusion and distress as he tries to make them both happy, eventually she backs off out of pity. Sasuke never gives an inch; Sasuke is a cold beautiful son of a bitch with no pity in him, but because she is a nice person she forgives him for it every time she goes home to the warm smiles of her parents. It's not his fault.
But...what would Naruto do?
If there's one thing that she's learned from Uzumaki Naruto it's that even when your hope has snapped in two, you don't give up. Never, ever, do you give up.
So when she steps into his personal space as she passes him in the street, when she finds him alone and talks over their last mission, her shoulder pressed against his rigid one and their hands almost touching, she tells herself that she's just doing what he'd want her to. It's simple. It's a game, and it's not over until one of them decides to stops playing.
"I have been meaning to thank you."
Sakura rolls onto her knees, shaking dust from her hair as one of Sai's animated birds streaks past her, wondering if she misheard.
"Thank me for what?"
Sai pauses, lifts his hand away from his scroll, and begins to roll it up. "Enough for today?"
"Yes." She stands up, wincing a little as her weight falls onto her right foot. "I feel like I could dodge a bolt of lighting, after that. Well, if it gave me a chance to get my breath back."
"I hit you quite a few times," Sai points out, matter-of-fact as ever, and Sakura wonders if it's worth repeating her question. But he goes on: "Naruto has been spending more time with me than usual. I am glad of the chance to get to know my friend better."
"But why would you thank...Sai." She pauses in the act of rubbing at a stain on her skirt and breaks into a smile. "Was that a joke? And a nasty one, at that."
He looks fleetingly pleased with himself. "You and Sasuke are spending so much time trying to keep his attention..."
"...that he wants to escape," she finishes ruefully. "Ironic."
"He doesn't know what to do about it." Sai slips his rolled-up scroll into a pocket of his vest.
"None of us do." She sighs. "Any suggestions?"
"I could kill one of you."
She looks at him helplessly. "Please tell me that was another joke."
He shrugs, but that faint smug expression has crept back again. "I haven't got any other ideas."
"I'm sorry if we're making things difficult for you."
Sai tilts his head in the old, considering look. "Why should you be sorry? It seems to me that I am the one finding things the least difficult."
"Are you sure?"
"No matter what happens, it'll make things interesting." Sai smiles. He looks as sincere as she's ever seen him, which is a relief. "I'll get used to it."
"It's just...gods, it's such a mess. Don't you wish our team was more normal?"
Sai surprises her by laughing, a light, pleasant sound that she's not heard more than twice before. "What is normal?"
Kakashi says only, "I hope you know what you're doing, Sakura."
She wonders what he says to the other two; if he says anything at all.
"Do you want to kiss me?"
"It's not funny any more. It was never funny."
"Then say no."
She's about to, but just as she draws breath Sasuke's expression slips a little bit and he looks -- for a moment -- like he might actually care what her response is. She hisses the air out between her teeth and then bites the side of her upper lip, wanting to hit him, but not wanting to lie.
"Fine," she says finally. "But that's just -- kissing. We're shinobi. Just wanting something doesn't make it a good idea."
"When we were younger --"
"No." She injects so much fury into the word that he actually lets her cut him off. "You don't get to lay the past on me. You left. You fucked us over. And yes, I had feelings for you then, but that...that was a juvenile crush, based on assumptions and appearances."
"So what is it now?"
Gods, how she would hate him, if she could only work out how to stop loving him. She's never had Naruto's knack for doing both at once.
"Habit," she says, and it's only partly a lie.
"What's going on?" Sakura's mother asks her, and Sakura has no answer to give her.
What's going on? Nothing so different to the usual, which is what makes the whole thing so frustrating. They work and they fight and they end up eating ramen in companionable silence, an unspoken truce to all of their personal battles hanging in the air for as long as it takes Naruto to inhale three bowls of noodles.
Sakura trains her chakra and her body and has no success whatsoever in training her heart. Sasuke laughs at her and asks her, sporadically, if she wants to kiss him; she alternates between ignoring him completely and punching him as hard as she can, trying not to think about what it means that he usually lets her land the punches.
Sasuke smiles knives at Naruto and Naruto goes a furious, helpless red; they fight up close and they fight at a distance, when all they can do is shout insults at each other; their fights are both proximal and distal, like the bones of the fingers shoved up close together. Like a fist.
The insults are hollow, easily shattered: they don't really mean anything.
Well, that's not quite true.
But they do add fuel to the fire, and though sometimes Sakura finds herself left out, more often she's somewhere in between, struggling to breathe, the air between the three of them stifling and soaring like a fever.
It goes against everything that she's ever assumed, to know that Sasuke wants Naruto and Naruto just wants, as wildly and stubbornly as he does everything else in his life, and yet neither of them seem to be making any sort of effort to unpick the knotted mess or even slice straight through it by making a final choice. They just fight. Sakura thinks and overthinks the situation until her head aches and she is frowning at her bowl, picking up clumps of rice with her chopsticks and then dropping them, absent and uncertain. She wonders if she's lost the game without knowing it and their fighting is simply a front, or if Sasuke is trying harder when her back is turned and Naruto is resisting, or if this really is all they know how to do; if they lack the ability to move forward from their state of intensely practiced rivalry. The thought should bring her comfort, albeit a selfish kind, but all it does is make her more irritated.
"Why aren't you nice to him?" she demands one day. "It's not like you're completely incapable of it: you're not rude to the others, not like you used to be, but the two of you are just as insufferable as ever. And you could be a little nicer to me too, you know. I'm still your friend."
Sasuke looks at her as though she's speaking another langauge but he doesn't care enough to translate. "Do you want me to be nice to you?"
She blinks and her answer flips itself around in her mouth.
Because it's true that Sasuke is at least polite to most people, but not to her and not to Naruto, and she wonders if the explanation could actually be this simple. The problem is that Sasuke has always seemed so untouchable, so self-possessed and certain of purpose, and now she's trying to cram this strange vulnerability onto her image of him as though it's a very tight hat.
She frowns. "Are you really that insecure? Are you testing us?"
"You don’t know what you're talking about."
"Keep kicking at him and as long as he comes back for more, it's all fine?"
He looks away. "You don't know --"
And louder: "Fine way to treat someone you love."
"Shut up!" Sasuke hisses, his anger abrupt and violent. "He won't give up on anything, that's just the way he is, it's not me, it's his stupid fucking need to rescue things, and sooner or later he'll work that out."
Sakura stares, unsure if she's awed or if she feels desperately sorry for him.
"You blind idiot," she says. Déjà vu. It's ridiculous that Sasuke needs this explained to him and it's bordering on infuriatingly ironic that it's her who keeps on having to do the explaining. "Of course it's you. You almost killed him and he still loves you -- do you really think a few arguments are going to dissuade him now?"
Silence. He starts to say something, and then stops, and for a moment he actually looks young enough to match his seventeen years. "And you?" is what he says eventually, his voice poisonous but tired. "What's your excuse, Sakura? Healing? Habit?"
She leans in and lays her hand on his arm, gentling, feeling the whisper of chakra under the skin. He doesn’t move away. When it comes to Sasuke it's never been about games: it's always been bargains.
She says, "I'm an optimist."
After that she changes her strategy, because it seems completely unfair that out of the three of them Sasuke should be the only one not torn between two desires. And, if she's honest, because she liked the way it felt to be able to hook a reaction out of him in the way that Naruto does.
Bargains, not games: legs and hair aren't going to do her much good here. The only way to catch Sasuke's attention is to make him angry, and the only way to hold it is to impress him, and her sole weapon is her own knowledge of this fact.
"Do you want to kiss me?"
Her arm tenses automatically, but what flashes into her head is this: she doesn't like that he lets her hit him.
So she steps in close until her lips are almost touching his cheek, and then she whispers, "I don't kiss traitors."
His hand moves and she grabs hold of his wrist and meets his eyes, thrilling at the shock that she finds there.
"Careful, Sasuke," she says. "You wouldn't want to undo all of your hard work."
She's a nice person. But sometimes she's a terrible person. Which is just another way of saying that she's human.
Sasuke yanks his hand away and leaves without saying a word, and Sakura exhales slowly through her mouth. That's enough. That's a start. She's sick of waiting for the storm to break, and the only option seems to be to pour her own energies into the fray.
The secret seems to be to keep Sasuke off balance, to make him think of her as a ninja and not as that pink-haired girl who, all those years ago, let her love for him intrude on who she was as a person. That won't happen again. Perhaps she still loves him because she doesn't know how not to, but it's different this time, because she knows who she is and she knows who he is, beyond the beauty of his face and the brilliance of his skill. Now she loves him with her eyes open, and on her own terms.
Certainly she'll never have Sasuke's talent or Naruto's raw power; she resigned herself long ago to the fact that they've always been better than her at almost everything, but her self-esteem is still healthy and she knows that she's damn good at her job. So she starts to deconstruct, with great care, some of the barriers that Tsunade has been building into her strength, the technical equivalent of Lee's training weights.
"Ah...well done, Sakura." Kakashi sounds faintly alarmed. "Try for a little more finesse, next time, in the name of not burying your teammates alive."
"All right." She looks around at the radius of broken earth and smiles. Naruto is staring at her like he's not sure if he wants to run away or kiss her, which is pretty much perfect; Sasuke looks shaken and sullen as he grabs her arm and spins her to face him.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Oh, well," Sakura says, and produces her prettiest, most feminine smile. "I'd hate to think that I was boring you."
Love and hate and there's something terrible lying beneath her sarcasm, oxymoron or dichotomy or whatever the right word is, she can't put her finger on it because it's just heat, tingling in her chest and in her palms, and it could be one feeling or two feelings or any number at all.
Sakura has grown adept at recognising the point at which a fever teeters between recovery and fatality.
Something needs to give, and she's always been the least inflexible of the three.
"Choose," she says, feeling wild and ballistic in the true thrown-kunai sense of the word. "Go on."
Naruto blinks twice and then his expression settles into betrayal, his mouth straight and pained like a fresh wound. "Sakura..."
"Choose one of us. Or kill one of us. Hypothetical. Who would it be?"
"I wouldn't," Naruto begins, and then shuts his mouth. If she were Sasuke he'd have hit her by now. She wishes she were Sasuke. She wishes it so much her stomach turns to burning sludge, because if she were Sasuke then there'd be no more Sakura and no more problem.
"No," she says. "No, you'd just kill yourself, wouldn't you? Fucking coward."
"Sakura," he says again, but she's walking away.
She avoids him for three days, which is only possible because Kakashi is working with him on a new technique and Sakura herself is at the hospital being pushed further and harder than Tsunade has ever pushed her before, which is almost enough to make her suspect some kind of adult conspiracy.
It ends with a note shoved under the door of their house, a note that her mother passes to her with a look that says, very clearly, sort out your life, Sakura.
So when Naruto opens the door to his apartment and motions for her to come inside, she tells herself that she's only doing it for her mother's sake, for her own sake, for closure, and not for anyone else. Because Naruto wants to talk to her about something important and it's all her fault because she told him to choose and now he has, and she predicted the outcome of this more than a year ago, and today her prediction is exactly the same.
Naruto makes a vague kind of gesture towards the kitchen. "Do you want, um --"
"No." She laces her hands together tightly. Clean cuts are best. "What did you want to say, Naruto?"
He screws up his mouth and, almost as visibly, his courage. "Sasuke and I had a talk," he starts, and Sakura actually laughs. By the look on Naruto's face, it's nothing like her normal laugh.
"Talk? You and Sasuke?"
"It...well. Yes. We're not completely hopeless," he protests, but he looks embarrassed. "Yes, we had a talk."
His hesitation is enough. She lifts her hands as though she can scoop the silence back towards her chest, and then she drops them again and starts to speak, not even sure what she's saying until it passes her lips.
"I don't know what you want me to do. I can't -- I can't just accept, and I know I'm supposed to, I know that love is supposed to mean all you want is for them to be happy, but it's not enough, I'm too selfish. I'm not going to be some tragic noble figure standing on the sidelines and handing out blessings. Fuck that. Fuck noble," she spits. She's terrified. She wants to grab him and pull him towards her and tell him, beg him, order him not to leave her alone. All of her emotional eggs are in this fragile basket woven out of the childhoods of two dysfunctional boys, hurtling towards the ground, and if this investment falls apart then she'll never gather the emotional capital to make another.
Everyone chooses. Sooner or later.
But she's never been able to do it, to make her final choice, so how dare they surpass her at this as well as everything else?
"Look, Sakura," and Naruto still has that look that means he doesn't know how to tell her something -- good, good, no words mean no changes.
"I don't --"
"Just shut up," he growls, and it comes out of nowhere, and the next thing she knows she's being pressed against a wall and Naruto's face is right there and his teeth are very white, very sharp, and curved into a frustrated frown. Sakura's heart gives a few huge pounds. He's gotten taller than she thought, or perhaps she's never let him this close; yes, some shamed part of her mind recognises that as truth. For all her flirting and frustration, she's never tried to slice through the knot either, she's been the one keeping him at arm's length, her locked elbows prophylaxis against the inevitable day when he pushes her away of his own accord.
"It doesn't have to be about choice. Can't you -- it's not black or white and it's never been you or Sasuke, and it's not because I'm a coward." The serious expression does not sit right on his face; she wants to reach up with her clever trained hands and tweak it into a smile. "It's because, um..." He appears to suddenly notice the way her breasts are pressed up against his torso, and trails off.
"It’s because there are good reasons for having at least three people in a team."
First she thinks, how surprising, and then she realises that she's not actually surprised at all. She turns her head and looks at Sasuke over the line of Naruto's arm.
"We're a team, then," she says, clipped. "You could have fooled me."
"Compromise," Sasuke says, which doesn't even make any sense, but then he smiles -- Uchiha fucking Sasuke standing there with a faint but genuine smile on his face, no knives in sight, and she wonders for a moment if Naruto got him drunk -- and he adds, "Teamwork," and she remembers.
"Sakura," Naruto says.
"What?" She snaps her eyes back to his face. "Do you -- oh."
She's wanted this for so long that it takes her quite a few seconds to realise that it's happening, and then a few seconds more to realise that all of her plans and fantasies have flown clear out of her head. But there is nothing frightening about the way Naruto moves his lips gently against hers, the pressure on her shoulders releasing as though she's suddenly switched in his mind from a kunoichi to a girl; totally unecessary, and sexist, and altogether a very Naruto thing to do. She closes her eyes and decides not to care.
When the kiss breaks there is something new between them, something warm and amazed in Naruto's face, and an empty space in Sakura's mind that she recognises as the absence of fear. Hope. Hope drawn out into a thin wire that loops around her wrist and lifts her hand to lie against Naruto's cheek.
"I never expected to fall in love with two people," she says, helpless.
Naruto shrugs. "Neither did I."
Sasuke doesn't say anything, because this is not a storybook and the world is neither ideal nor symmetrical. But he watches Naruto's hand on her shoulder with a calm proprietorial balance in his face, and it's not normal -- what is normal, where they're concerned? -- but it's enough, for now.
And later -- later he closes the distance, but not completely, and his eyes get darker and darker like falling night as he watches the play of Naruto's sure fingers against her fevered skin, slanted pools of nothingness set above his slightly-parted lips. Sasuke whose one constancy has been that the tighter he turns the key on his own outward display, the more he has swirling beneath the surface. Sasuke who has always been the force driving them together and apart and onwards, and who could take anything from them at this moment, and instead is just watching them with the same tense patience that it must have taken for him to spend all those years with his brother's death held highest and brightest in his mind. But no longer -- a rush of relief, felt past the air on her bare shoulders and the slight ache of her lower lip -- no longer.
Sakura gasps and pushes herself against Naruto's hands and meets Sasuke's starless, bottomless eyes. She mouths, You're ours now, knowing him capable of translation.
After a moment, he smiles at her.
She hates that smile, and she's always hated it, and it's because she wants to press her fingers against it and see if they'll bleed. She hates it for what it does to her heart. She hates it because it's her love for Sasuke; it's Sasuke's voice saying thank you; it's Naruto's joy reflected on a mouth too sarcastic for it, the shared emotion tying them all together in knots too small to unpick with a blade.
She hates it, but she's learning how to love the things you hate, a little at a time.
Do you want to kiss me? she asks.
"I don't know," Sasuke says aloud. His dark, considering gaze slides over her, to Naruto, and back. "Ask me again in five minutes."