the greatest pretenders
Chapter Six: Family, Part II
The knock on their front door was too quiet for Sarada to hear from the kitchen. Looking at her phone screen, Sakura quirked an eyebrow at who would be coming to visit them at this time of night. Slowly willing herself to stand up, she walked over to the door and looked through the eye hole and found herself completely frozen. Her eyes stayed glued to the figure that she was seeing, wearing a dark cloak and whose black hair hadn't actually grown that much since she last saw him. Haircuts? she asked herself. Drawing back, she felt her jaw tense as she turned to look behind her, where a second door to the kitchen was.
There was no crime in leaving Sasuke at their front door, right? As long as Sarada was asleep before he could come inside…
"Sakura." His voice was low, and had aged along with him, but he still sounded the way she remembered him: cold, but perhaps with a false reassurance that he wasn't. Not towards her, anyway. "Can you open the door?"
"What're you doing here?" she whispered, knowing he could hear her. "Is this a joke?"
"What? No, I came back."
He sighed from the other side of the door. Although he sounded tired, there was no way he was more tired than her. "To see my family."
"Just. Come back later." She could hear the footsteps in the kitchen walking back to the dining room. "I'll talk to you then."
"No. I came back to-"
"Just do it, Sasuke." Touching the door with the tip of her fingers, she could feel her heart sink as the words left her lips. "You owe me at least that."
Sasuke did not say another word, but instead, turned his heel and walked away. Though she heard his sandals fading, she knew that he would stay close. Listening, watching - waiting for her to open the door to let him back into her life. It wasn't that he had no reason to think that she wouldn't; she was his wife. The problem, of course, was with the fact that Sarada was dealing with questions about the very father who abandoned her for the duration of her entire life so far.
He sure played the abandoner part extremely well.
Sakura spent the next two hours watching the screen with her daughter, laughing at the jokes they knew by heart after so many rewatches of Sarada's favorite movie. Her eyes darted every now and then to the drawn back curtains, worried that Sarada would be able to see her father, perhaps hiding in the bushes. She bit her lip in an attempt to not laugh at the humor behind the situation, should it happen.
"Hey, Mom?" Sarada quietly asked as she snuggled closer. "I want you to know that I really admire you."
The rose-haired woman smiled into her daughter's hair. "I know you do."
"Jee," the young Uchiha rolled her eyes, "you're so humble."
Sakura laughed, and for the next hour, it was silent except for the sound of the television and Sarada's yawns. Tempted to prompt the young teenager to go to sleep, Sakura knew that trying to coerce her would only make her stay up later than she led on, which meant that there was a real chance that Sarada would see Sasuke. There were so many things that could go wrong if that were the case, and as Sakura looked towards the drawn back curtains for the hundredth time, Sarada finally stood up and stretched.
"Okay," she yawned, "I can't keep my eyes open."
"Night, Mom." She pushed her feet into her home slippers and she began shuffling towards the stairs. "Don't sleep too late."
"I won't," Sakura replied, smiling, "make sure you brush your teeth."
Sarada slid her feet across the wooden floors for a few minutes as she went upstairs before Sakura finally heard her door shut gently. She sunk back into the sofa and sighed heavily, her migraine coming back. Her fingers rubbed her temple and she counted the seconds before she was certain that Sarada had finally fallen asleep. What ensued next was not Sakura rushing to go outside and speak with Sasuke, but rather, pacing around the dining room and kitchen trying to prepare herself for what he had to say.
She opened and closed the fridge door a few times, taking a different snack every single time. No matter how much she chewed on whatever she was eating, it did little to calm the nerves that were building up inside of her. Now she worried she was going to hit him as soon as she faced him, or worse, that she was going to find any kind of reason to still love him. Sakura had convinced other people that she still loved him deeply, and maybe she did, but so many years of being apart tended to change things, no matter what people said.
It didn't help that along with her crumbling wedding vows, an old friendship was being rekindled and kept her warm.
After finishing off what had been left of the dirty dishes, Sakura drew in a breath and expelled it harshly before turning towards the second door of the kitchen. Swiftly grabbing a jacket, she carefully opened the front door and slipped through, making sure it didn't make noise as she closed it. She turned around and closed her eyes, leaning her head softly against the door. Surely enough, when her eyes opened, Sasuke stood in front of her, the curve of his mouth twitching into an awkward smile.
Neither of them said anything for a few minutes. Sakura was pretty convinced that some part of her was dreaming, but when he took a step closer, she immediately straightened her back. "Don't come closer," she said.
"I thought you agreed to talk."
"I did, but," she whispered, "not here."
Sasuke bit his lip and looked to the side at the path that led up to their home. Wordlessly, he began to walk down it, silently signaling for her to follow him. She watched his back - broad-shouldered and strong - and took slow steps towards him, trailing behind him. Their shoes clacked against the cement as he led them to a park, much like the one where Sakura had professed her love for him before he left Konoha. She thought of that night as he finally sat down on a bench, watching her carefully before gesturing for her to sit beside him.
There was no way in hell that the gods were not testing her.
She ignored the empty spot next to him, but her eyes moved to the space above his head. In the distance stood the Hokage Tower, the one light she knew so well still on. She could still see the blond-haired idiot crouching over the mountains of paperwork, stretching his back and standing up to get to his stash of ramen to keep him working throughout the night. Her jaw tightened when she saw - for the first time in a very long time - that the light he always kept on, finally went out.
"You better have a good reason for showing up without notice," she said, her voice hard.
"I came back for you-"
"I know that that's not true," she breathed, "because if it were, you would've been home years ago, and I wouldn't have had to raise a daughter alone."
A tense silence permeated the air when Sakura finally turned to look at him and found that he had not changed in the slightest. He still wore that complacent expression, even when he was being berated. Sasuke made no move to defend himself, nor did he say anything to calm her nerves. Since they got married, whenever he became aware that he had hurt her feelings, he would stay silent until she said something. It wasn't constructive, it wasn't even healthy, but for him, that was the make up of a marriage. Sakura let out a sharp breath.
"Aren't you going to say anything?"
"I know I was wrong."
"Then say that," she spat, "don't wait around for me to give you an opportunity to talk. You wanted to talk. You wanted a chance to explain to me why the hell you decided to show up - in the middle of the night, no less - so, just talk."
It was Sakura's turn to silently stare at him, each passing second feeling so incredibly slow that she vaguely wondered if she should start saying something, after all. Just as her lips parted, Sasuke drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes, leaning the back of his head against the bench he sat on. His eyebrows were knitted together, a sign that he was struggling considerably with his words. That, of course, was no surprise to Sakura. She crossed her arms, waiting, when he lifted his head and opened his eyes to look at her, a new glint in his eyes that she did not recognize as being authentically his.
"I want to fix what I did."
"You're gonna have to be more specific," she scoffed, "there were a lot of things you broke."
"Sakura," he uttered, "I want to be there for Sarada. For you."
"It took you fourteen years to realize that?"
"I did a lot of traveling-"
"-and I understand now that my family is here. You are here."
In most cases, the way he chose his words would have made her swoon, had he been the kind of person to keep his promises. There was a reason that he never made them, but there was a seeping anger that was bubbling in her blood. It was always her that reached out to him, trying to get him to come back home. There was currently no war going on, and she certainly was no military wife. His eyes did not move from her face as he waited for her response, and she had to admit that that perseverance and tenacity was too much for her to simply ignore.
"Fine?" he asked, his tone mildly confused.
"Fine," she continued, "but you can't just walk into that house like you weren't gone for the last decade."
"It's our house." He said complacently, as though his statement were a matter of fact. Unfortunately, Sakura did not necessarily see it the way he did. She tightened her jaw and ignored his words, acting as though he hadn't even spoken.
"We have to figure out how to tell Sarada," she sighed, "because believe me, it's not going to be easy."
"Why can't I just talk to her?"
Sakura blinked, then cackled incredulously. "You've got to be kidding."
"She's my daughter, too."
Sakura scoffed and placed her hands on her hips. What an idiot.
"Stay away from my daughter," Sakura hissed, "at least until she's ready. Until I am."
Not giving him an opportunity to say another word, Sakura turned her heel and began walking back towards the house. He was right, of course, that it was technically their house, but she wasn't going to let him have it. She had every right to be angry, to be cold towards him, and it was obvious to Sakura that he knew it, too. He did not chase after her as she made her way to the pathway that led up to the house, not that she was expecting him to.
Closing the door softly behind her, Sakura looked at the space before her that led up the stairs, then the hallway that led to Sarada's room, and was suddenly hit with the notion that the conversation she had just had was in fact, a real one, and not one borne of genjutsu. She held her head in her hands and rubbed her temples, trying to will the migraine to go away. This was supposed to be her day to rest, but she knew that it would be at least a little while before she got an ounce of rest. She sighed deeply.
As she dragged her feet up the stairs, she ran through Sasuke's words in her head. A heavy weight fell upon her chest and stayed there, even when she closed her bedroom door and sauntered to her bathroom. It was only when she looked at herself in the mirror that she realized she had been holding back tears. They welled up in her eyes and she felt a thickness in her throat that threatened to betray her in the form of a sob. Sakura took a deep, shaky breath, and forced herself to look in the mirror, trying to swallow back the tears that hadn't come out in years.
How was she going to face Sarada? She had spent the entirety of her daughter's life asking her to not hate her own father, and yet, the anger that had spent so much time in her blood now melted into her bones. Perhaps hate wasn't the right word in her case, but of all times for her so-called husband to show his face, he apparently felt like he was doing the absolute right thing for his family by showing up now. Truthfully, Sakura wanted to laugh, as did most people who were too miserable to cry, because she had never met a person more selfish than Uchiha Sasuke.
Teaching her own daughter to not hate the father that abandoned her was one thing, but teaching herself to keep loving someone who left her to raise a child alone was an entirely different battle. She was a grown woman who knew right from wrong, and even though that was a fact, there was plenty of room for doubt of the things that had once been crucial lessons as she grew older. Softly threading her fingers through her hair and pushing a lock behind her ear, Sakura drudged to the bed that, for the first time in over ten years, had felt colder than usual. The image of her husband danced behind her eyelids before she finally drifted off, dreaming of the night that he left Konoha. Her tears had stained her cheeks and for years, her heart had tried to heal.
Sacrifice was a ghost that still haunted Sakura, promising that it was always out of love.
"There's been rumors that there are some outposts that have been filled with suspicious activities. Our intel shows that it could be directly related to the production of utsushō, but we can't exactly… confirm it yet."
Naruto huffed. "What does that mean, Shikamaru?"
"It means that while this is just speculation," the man who always looked half asleep said flatly, "there is a chance that this is what we're looking for."
"Why is there uncertainty?" Sakura asked, crossing her arms and furrowing her brow. "I mean, if there's intel suggesting that-"
"Because there's another rumor that says they're fronting as traveling merchants."
"You're kidding," Naruto sighed, "seriously? Traveling merchants?"
"I know what you're thinking," Shikamaru answered, "which is why some of Sai's best agents are out there checking it out. We should be receiving a report in the next few days."
"I mean," Sakura sighed in exhaustion, "if you think about it, it kinda does make sense that they would be fronting as traveling merchants."
"So they'd be selling utsushō to their clients without being questioned?" Naruto asked.
"Exactly, but that doesn't mean a few won't get caught."
The Hokage leaned forward in his seat and gently pressed the heels of his palms to his closed eyes. Sakura had been pacing around his office for the last twenty minutes, and before that, she had been standing up for about an hour. This had to be one of the longest meetings that she's had with him so far, and the information she was being given did little to calm her nerves. She pushed back a lock of hair and tucked it behind her ear. When Shikamaru glanced at her, she bit her lip in frustration. If her teeth had sunk any more into her bottom lip, she'd be bleeding.
"How many people are out on the field right now?" Sakura asked.
"A small number." Shikamaru answered casually.
Naruto looked up from his hands and regarded her with curiosity. "Why are you asking?"
"If there's too little people," she said, "it would take too much time to do some recon. Shouldn't there be more people?"
"Sakura-" Shikamaru started, his tone warning.
"It's okay," Naruto waved him off, "she has a point."
"We can't draw too much attention."
"When did you get so stiff?" Naruto joked, but his advisor merely rolled his eyes. "I know you're concerned, Sakura, but we're just gathering information. You don't have to offer yourself up."
"How did you know-"
"It's you," he chuckled, "so you'd do anything to get things moving."
The silence that ensued was only awkward for Shikamaru. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other as his eyes darted between the Hokage and the village's head medical ninja. It wasn't that Sakura hadn't noticed - because of course she had - but she felt as though she had a million things to say to Naruto that were stuck in her throat, that his advisor merely repeatedly glancing at her was not enough to make her prickle with nervous sweat. Having him there didn't make her nervous, but it certainly made the atmosphere a little weird. As though on cue, Shikamaru cleared his throat and straightened his posture, looking over at the Hokage with an unreadable expression.
"I have to check on a few things." he said swiftly, shooting another glance at Sakura. "I will be back later."
The door closed behind Sakura and thoughts crept into her head that he really couldn't have run out of the Hokage's office fast enough. She drew in a deep breath and gave Naruto a smile before taking a few steps closer, an intense, unnamed emotion, pooling at the pit of her stomach. Perhaps it was guilt, or perhaps it was something akin to it, especially because now that she looked at his smiling face, she remembered the night by the harbor. Her lips tingled although he had not touched them, and before she could say a word, he cleared his throat.
"So," he started, "Sasuke's back."
Her eyes widened by a fraction. "You knew."
"I'm the Hokage. I have to know."
She let out a soft grunt and cleared her throat. "Uh, yeah. He's back."
"You must be happy."
When he said the words, the usual light in his eyes had dimmed. There was a flicker of something that looked similar to sadness, but the smile he wore did not betray him. Before she could answer his statement, he stood from his seat and leaned against the corner of his desk, much closer to her than if he had been sitting down. She felt her breath catch in her throat, but she forced herself to keep a neutral expression. Naruto was certainly watching her, looking for any sign of… happiness? Relief? She wasn't sure, but whatever he was looking for, he didn't seem to find it.
"I'm surprised," she breathed finally, "to say the least. It's been fourteen years. For him to just show up…"
"But isn't that a good thing?"
She scoffed. "Is it? I never told you this, but I was really mad about the way he left. He didn't even want to take me with him."
"Knowing him, he had his reasons."
"Then he shouldn't have asked me to marry him."
There was a sharpness in her words that made Naruto's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. Of course, not having talked to the guy in fifteen years had made it so that there were bound to be things that he didn't know. The embarrassment she felt from her small outburst showed on her cheeks, and she opened her mouth to begin apologizing for being so forthright, but he waved his hand in an attempt to reassure her that it was okay.
"I'm just… frustrated." Sakura said finally, sighing.
"He left for a long time. I would be surprised if you weren't."
"Some things have changed about him," she said, "but I can't put my finger on it. Obviously, him being back may be good for Sarada, but…" she trailed off.
"I don't know if she's ready."
"She's been waiting her whole life to meet him."
"That means that during her whole life, she was constantly experiencing an internal struggle and had questions that she knew I couldn't answer. I don't know." She paused and drew in a deep breath. "I don't know what a good mother would do."
Naruto didn't say a word but he pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, clearly deep in thought. Sakura glanced at his face and noted the worry lines that were starting to form on his forehead. Being Hokage was no easy feat, for sure. She averted her eyes to her crossed arms and searched her head for a way to diminish this tension she felt emanating from him.
"I think," Naruto finally said, "she'd be really happy. Maybe a little angry. But for the most part, happy."
When he looked at her, Sakura remembered that all those years ago, he had been training to master the Nine Tails so that it didn't consume him. He had spoken of his encounter with his father, who turned out to be the Lord Fourth. Back when they still told each other everything, he had smiled when he spoke of Namikaze Minato, a man he was proud to call his father. His mother, who he described as a beautiful red-headed woman, had been completely different than what he expected. Still, he spoke of her with high regard, and had wished that she had had time to raise him. Sakura remembered tears welling in her eyes the day he told her, empathizing with him. Naturally, he would see any child as missing their parents as someone he could relate to, even if that connection was different than his circumstances. Sakura nodded slowly, considering his words carefully.
"Maybe in the next few days, then."
"Did he bring back a lot with him?"
"No," she shook her head, "just some sack. Can't imagine there was a lot in there."
Naruto frowned. "I have to tell you something."
Sakura raised her eyebrows. "Okay? You hiding something?"
"Well," he chuckled, "not really hiding, because it was classified at the time… but now that you're working on this mission, I should tell you that I was having Sasuke do some personal recon for me."
"But he's been gone fourteen years."
"I only contacted him a few months ago."
Sakura blinked in disbelief. "You mean, Sasuke responded to you and not to me? What the f-"
"He's also part of this mission." Naruto panicked, immediately standing up and holding his hands up as if in surrender. "I just needed him to check some things out-"
"When were you gonna tell me that you were in contact with the man who left his village - who left me - yet another time to repent for his sins?!" she shouted at him, her hot anger growing bigger with each second. "Naruto, I swear to God-"
"I swear, Sakura-chan- he only answered a few days ago."
"You reached out to him months ago and he only responded a few days ago?"
"Yeah," he responded sheepishly, still clearly afraid of her, "I thought it was weird but… that's what happened."
Letting out a sharp breath, Sakura had a hunch that Sasuke had wanted to make it appear as though he was redeeming himself, but he clearly had some other priorities that he intended to take care of first. God forbid, his family was merely a convenient stop along the way. It wasn't very much like him to say that he wanted to fix things, and yet, she still believed that a part of him was in fact, looking for atonement. She rubbed her temples.
"I'm gonna kill him."
"Aw, don't say that!"
"I just- I can't get over that."
"You know that he doesn't do things half-assedly," Naruto reminded her, "so if he came to see you, it was because he wanted to."
"Besides," Naruto said slowly, "I thought this would make you happy."
"Then why are you angry?"
"I'm just... " she thought for a moment, wondering when exactly talking with Naruto had started to feel normal again. "...in shock. I think I just have to…"
"Calm down?" Naruto offered, smirking.
She laughed good-humoredly. "Yeah. You're right."
"I always am!" he teased, copying her earlier statement.
"You could never be right like me," Sakura laughed, "because you have to have five times the awareness that you do if you wanna be right all the time."
"That's funny, because you can be pretty dumb with figuring some things out."
"Me? Dumb? Who're you confusing me with?"
They both erupted into laughter and truthfully, Sakura had realized in that moment that she had been worried about their friendship over nothing. She had avoided him for fifteen years because she was ashamed of herself, but seeing the man that Naruto had turned out to be had made whatever pain she felt in the past disappear. Even with the family issues she had to deal with looming in the back of her head, reconnecting with Naruto in this manner had done wonders to the stress levels that she had been experiencing before.
"Hey," Naruto said, "we all need to go out for dinner."
"That's what you're thinking about?"
"Sasuke's back, and you know. I think it'd be fun if you and Hinata spent some time together."
Sakura blinked. "Oh, so by 'we', you mean…"
"Yeah, the four of us."
The rose-haired woman could have sworn she felt her eye twitch. "Sounds great." She gritted the words through her teeth, and it was truly an amazing thing that Naruto didn't seem to take notice. He gave her a small smile, but there was something that seemed almost wrong with it. Of course, if she ever asked about it, she might open a can of worms that both she and he would rather stay shut. She cleared her throat.
"I think I should go."
In all the time that she had known Naruto, Sakura was aware of the fact that he was excellent at finding words to describe how he felt. It was one of the many things that she admired about him, especially because she found it difficult to voice her own feelings.
"About the other night…"
Sakura felt her heart drop to her stomach. "Yeah?" she squeaked.
"I'm sorry," he said solemnly, "I'm sure that me playing pranks as an adult isn't… endearing anymore."
"That was a prank." She said it more as a surprised statement than a question, but Naruto nodded cautiously.
"I, uh. I don't know…"
"It's okay to not know," Sakura whispered softly.
Naruto stammered. "I couldn't… I mean. It was late, we were tired… I'm really sorry."
"I never want you to think that you're just… I want you to stay-" before he could finish his sentence, he stopped himself abruptly, as though he had revealed too much information.
Sakura cocked her head. "What are you...?"
Naruto's eyes widened in panic, but Sakura's expression was as confused as ever. As though suddenly aware that Shikamaru had left the room, Naruto moved behind his desk and sat back in his seat, sifting through documents and mumbling about Shikamaru was taking too long of a break. His hand moved in a flurry as he signed documents - the fastest she'd ever seen them move when it didn't involve ninjutsu - and taking that as her cue, Sakura began moving towards the door. Just as her fingers touched the doorknob, he uttered her name.
"Sakura-chan, everything's gonna be fine, y'know."
She blinked, still a little blindsided. "I know. Thanks."
Pulling the door behind her until she heard a click, Sakura stared at the wall before her and furrowed her brow. Surely, that was one of the weirder encounters that she'd had with him in the entire time she knew him. Making her way down to the ground floor, she walked slowly back to her new office, which was much more spacious than she'd anticipated. There was room for a mini tea station, which Yuzuru had beamed about. As soon as she entered her office, Yuzuru was already waiting for her on the leather sofa that would have been used for official business.
He spoke of updated reports about patients in the east wing, of documents that she needed to look over and sign before deadlines, and even of meetings that were coming up for her in the next few weeks for medical ninjas from other countries. Nodding as though she heard him, Sakura moved to sit in her chair and leaned her back against it, resting her arms on either side of the chair. Yuzuru had begun walking towards her, placing a few folders onto her desk but his words were garbled in her ears. She looked up at him, but her disciple offered no indication that he was going to repeat anything he was going to say. Instead, he smiled, bowed, and left the room, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
Sakura rubbed circles in her temples and closed her eyes, trying to convince herself that what she had just heard was a figment of her imagination. There was no way that Naruto had been insinuating anything - and yet, she repeated the phrase in her head, trying to understand what the hell it meant. She had never been one to read into things, and so, after taking a few deep breaths and slapping her own face to draw focus to her work, she filed away his words in the dark pits of her mind, telling herself they would never see the light of day because they didn't mean anything.
Of course, Naruto had had a point when he revealed that she was absolutely oblivious to a choice of things.
The Second Tsunade had been hunched over her desk, signing documents and looking through files, for such a long time, that she hardly noticed when Yuzuru stepped into her office to turn on the light and brought her some food from the vending machine. It was only when he called her name for the fourth time that she finally looked up, her eyes slightly hazy from having been reading for so long. He offered her an encouraging smile and set down the pastry in front of her, next to her cup of peppermint tea.
"How long have I been working?" she said warily, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"A few hours."
Sakura groaned and leaned back in her chair, sensing that some sort of vacation was needed in the near future. She looked at Yuzuru through half-lidded eyes and gave him a small smile. The young man didn't respond by saying anything, but instead, sat in the chair across from her desk and rested his arms on the arm rests. The lines in his face seemed deeper, even though he was only nineteen. When Sakura wasn't doing extra research, he was doing it for her. Surely enough, the guilt had hit her hard, just as many things were, lately.
"Are you alright?" Yuzuru asked softly. "You've been in kind of a funk since this morning."
"This morning?" Sakura repeated, confused.
"You came into the office looking like you had a hangover, or something."
"So," he cleared his throat and shifted in his seat, "are you alright?"
"It's just been… really stressful."
"All the research?"
Sakura smiled curtly. "Among other things."
"What did Lord Seventh say?"
"Apparently," Sakura sighed, "there are already some ANBU agents that are looking into some rumors that we got. I can't do much right now, except keep doing more research so that we can know things for sure."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?"
"How is it good? We have to wait until we're allowed to be dispatched."
"Maybe it's to protect you."
"He knows what I'm capable of," she said, her voice hard, "there's no need to protect me."
The young man huffed but didn't say anything more. He looked at the piles of documents on her desk and his brow furrowed, clearly concerned. Working in close quarters with his shishou ensured that he recognized when her behavior was different, but it worked the other way, too. Sakura could tell he wanted to say something, but forcing it out of him was not going to get them anywhere. She waited, watching the word bubbling at the tip of his tongue before he finally opened his mouth.
"Did something happen after I left yesterday?"
"No," Sakura lied, "why do you ask?"
"Um. Are you sure?"
He looked at her directly now, something more than just concern reflected in his eyes. "It's just… after I left, I saw something."
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "What did you see?"
"Well," he uttered, "you know that park that leads up to your house? I saw… someone sitting there. And, he had black hair and was wearing a cloak-"
"Carrying some kind of sack?"
"Yeah! Who was that?"
Sakura smiled, although a tinge of sadness touched it, and she leaned forward and rested her chin in her palms. Curiosity had spread through to Yuzuru's face, and that hint of concern had gone away at his shishou essentially confirming that the person he saw was no danger to her. Not physically, anyway. She drew in a breath through her nose and her smile fell from her face. "That was my husband."
Just as suddenly as the curiosity lit his face, it left and was replaced with an emotion that Sakura had never seen him wear. She nodded, wordlessly agreeing with whatever it was that he was feeling. It couldn't have been hard to figure out, considering that Yuzuru had just the slightest idea of how she felt about her own marriage and being addressed by her maiden name. The room was silent, and her disciple would not take his eyes off her for a few minutes until she sighed in exasperation.
"He's back?" he finally choked out.
"It seems so."
"No," she shook her head, "not yet. I don't know how to tell her."
Yuzuru nodded, showcasing his understanding at her desire to protect her daughter. "I can only imagine."
"Can I ask you something?" When Yuzuru nodded, Sakura sat up straighter in her seat. "If your dad came home the way my husband did… would you have wanted to know immediately?"
Sakura blinked in surprise. "Really?"
"He may have abandoned me, but he's still my dad," he said solemnly, "and… even now, a part of me wonders what kind of man he is."
"Does it really matter?"
"Yes, because even now, I wish he could see what I've become. When it comes to that, I really wish he could be proud of me. Believe me, it matters."
Taking a deep breath, Sakura swiveled her chair to face the window behind her, absorbing both the words of her old friend as well as her disciple. Deep down, she knew they were right; if she didn't play her cards carefully, Sarada would end up not being able to forgive her. She was always saying how she wanted the best for her daughter, how she wanted her to grow into the best version of herself despite raising her alone. Often, she felt incompetent at the task, but not telling her daughter that her estranged father was now back in town… well. That would certainly complicate her family life even more.
"You know," she started, still staring out the window at the town below, "the night he left Konoha, I begged him to stay."
"Mhhm, but obviously, he left, anyway."
She couldn't hear an answer coming from him, but she heard him shuffle in his seat. If he was going to understand her better, he had to know this.
"He's always leaving," she continued, "and maybe, it was understandable at a certain time. But we're older now, we have a daughter now…"
In the hallways, they heard the voices of the nurses bidding farewell to each other as they finished their shifts. They laughed as they left the building, leaving a haunting silence outside her office door. Sakura turned back around to face her disciple, whose eyes were alive with a fervor that almost looked like anger. She exhaled softly and offered a smile, trying to diffuse the tension. Yuzuru didn't let up though, and he tightened his jaw as he processed her words. When he didn't say anything, she continued.
"For him to show up like that was a surprise, yes. I don't really know how to feel about it… but he's back now, so that counts for something… right?"
"Unless he's back to actually fix things," Yuzuru said slowly, "then I think you have every right to be as upset as you are."
"So I've heard."
"You don't have to forgive him," he reminded her, "but you do have to give him a chance to know Sarada-chan."
"I do think the most important thing is my daughter," Sakura agreed with him, "and if he's going to screw that up…"
"What if he doesn't?"
"What if he does?" she countered a little too defensively. "He messed up once, and it broke her-" she took a breath to calm herself down, remembering having to answer questions to a five-year-old about a father who had left her behind. She sniffled, but no more words would come out.
"Maybe he wants to do better," Yuzuru softly uttered, "maybe he really has realized what he's done wrong."
"I hope you're right," his shishou replied dismissively, no longer wanting to indulge in the drama that she tried hard not to think about, "because I thought maybe I was an idiot for still wanting to believe in him."
"You still love him, right?"
Sakura didn't answer, but the hesitance was enough for a look of sympathy to wash over Yuzuru's face. She didn't not love him, but time and time again, she had to ask herself if she loved him, or if she loved the idea of being with someone who, once he loved someone, loved them so deeply that it destroyed him from the inside out. Growing up as a girl in Fire Country, it was often the custom in young girls to have crushes on boys who paid no attention to them. At some point, both parties would grow out of it, and more often than not, it was hard to tell whether she, or Sasuke, had done so.
"If you could choose a different life, would you?" Yuzuru asked instead, his expression showing that he was trying to tread carefully.
"I don't like that question," Sakura replied flatly, "because even if I would, I can't change my present. This is my life now, so please," she huffed, "don't ever ask me that again."
Her disciple nodded sympathetically and rose from his seat to excuse himself. He bowed his head and bade her goodnight, but before his hand touched the door, the buzz of the intercom on her desk resounded in her office, making them both turn to look. Yuzuru's eyes darted from the telephone to her face, raising his eyebrows as if questioning whether or not she was going to answer. Sakura sighed and her hand reached forward to put the phone on speaker.
"Ms. Haruno, there's someone… here to see you."
Spearmint eyes gave a side glance to the clock on the desk, reading 9PM.
"All shifts have ended for the day," Sakura replied diplomatically, "would you please ask them what this is in regards to? If it can wait until tomorrow morning, please tell them so."
"Um, that's the thing. They stopped by Mr. Kirishima's desk but he wasn't there… is he in your office?"
At the mention of his surname, Yuzuru raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I'm here," he called from the other side of the room. "Who is it?"
"Ah, he says his name is Uchiha Sasuke."
Yuzuru scoffed near the door and folded his arms before him, giving Sakura a knowing look. His shishou let out a sharp breath, almost as if to say 'of course he would show up here'. Her hands motioned for her disciple to sit down on the sofa. Obviously, she was trying to avoid proper alone time with her so-called husband, so that she would no longer be confused about whether or not she loved him. Another reason for her caution may or may not have had to do with Yuzuru's words about a father abandoning his child. She cleared her throat.
"Send him up."
With a soft click on the other end, it was only Sakura and Yuzuru in the room again and he looked at her curiously. "Wouldn't everyone know who Uchiha Sasuke? How does she not know?"
"Because not everyone studied as hard as you did in school," Sakura chuckled, "but it's fine. Honest mistake."
The dark-haired man shrugged as though it didn't bother him, but because he was a person who genuinely cared about history, Sakura could imagine that it more than irritated him that someone didn't know who Sasuke was, especially if they didn't know that he was her husband. She drummed her fingers against her cheekbones and waited for the ding! of the elevator before finally, Sasuke appeared at the door, giving a light knock.
"Come in." Sakura called out.
When he opened the door, his gaze first fell to Yuzuru, whose usual pleasant demeanor had changed to something somewhat a little more hostile. He tightened his jaw as Sasuke approached him, looking him up and down. Some things never change, Sakura thought vaguely to herself, and found herself surprised when the Uchiha extended his hand to her disciple, looking for an introduction. He gave a small smile - the kind that was only used to be polite - and introduced himself.
"Sasuke. Who are you?"
"Kirishima Yuzuru," her disciple answered coolly, "I'm Ms. Haruno's disciple."
Sasuke raised an eyebrow in question. "Ms. Haruno?"
Yuzuru shot a glance at her, though she wasn't sure what it was supposed to mean. Standing up from her desk, she cleared her throat to get Sasuke's attention, whose expression was still suspicious as to why people didn't seem to address her with his surname. He removed his gloved hand from Yuzuru's and took a few steps forward, looking around at the pristine walls that revealed art, some scrolls, and her certificate as a medical ninja.
"Nice office," he said plainly, "is it new?"
Sakura's voice had come out smaller than expected. "Yes."
No more words left his lips as he came closer now, the same nonchalant expression plastered on his face. Behind him, Sakura could see Yuzuru's own face twist with in disdain. Perhaps telling him her version of the story hadn't helped in trying to alleviate the tension she felt, because now every time she would look at Yuzuru, she would know that he didn't quite like him. Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, Sakura forced herself to look down at her desk as she felt Sasuke finally be close enough that he could reach out and touch her.
"What're you doing here?" she practically hissed. "I told you to make yourself practically invisible, and then you show up at my office."
"Your employees don't seem to know who I am."
"There's no need for them to know who you are."
"Sakura," Sasuke sighed, "I just wanted to do something nice for you."
"Walk you home."
Wide, spearmint eyes looked up then, an incredulity painted on them. "Are you crazy? If Sarada sees-"
"How the hell do you know?"
"I'll only walk you back up until the park," he said calmly, "I swear. I just wanted to see my wife."
When they had first gotten married, hearing Sasuke refer to her as his 'wife' had been a dream come true, but now that she was older and had a better sense of what was healthy and what wasn't, it felt overused. He never spoke her name with reverence the way she once spoke his, and she always used to tell herself that he loved her, even if he didn't show it as much as she would have liked him to. Her involuntary reaction had her scowling at her words, but Sasuke was quick to remedy it with such simple words.
"Give me a chance."
At his words, Sakura glanced one more time at Yuzuru, whose eyes were glued to the floor. Of course he's not going to get involved, she told herself. I'm a grown woman. It's my choice. She took a deep breath.
"Okay," she uttered, "but just this once. You promised you'd stay away from her."
Sasuke merely nodded and turned heel to walk out of her office, presumably waiting for her by the elevator. When the door closed behind him, Yuzuru let out a puff of air that sounded like a scoff, his face contorted into one of disbelief. "Are you serious?" he asked incredulously. "He's your husband? Ms. Haruno-"
"I don't wanna hear it," she said softly as she packed her things, "because he's still my husband. So please, forgive me."
Yuzuru's jaw had practically fallen to the floor as she swooped out of her office, her bag in hand. Quickly making her way to the elevator and hitting the button, she stood in silence with Sasuke, which had always made her feel somewhat awkward, though she never said it out loud before. She often kept her laughs to a minimum around him, mainly because he didn't understand her sense of humor. Whenever she used to find something funny, she would chuckle to herself and always wished for someone that she could share her laughter with. She let out a sigh and was absolutely taken back when she felt Sasuke lace his own fingers with hers.
"What are you doing?" she asked coldly as the elevator doors opened.
Sasuke's expression was mildly surprised. "Holding your hand?"
They were both silent for the next ten minutes, even as they began walking towards the park that was closest to the house. Sakura had made sure to always stay at least half a step ahead of him. He said he wanted to walk her home, but never said anything about holding her hand or acting lovey-dovey in public. She had been young once, and she had craved for that affection so much, that because he never gave it, she stopped expecting it. In a way, he had made her harder than stone.
"I'm sorry," he uttered as they approached the pathway that led up to the house, "I just wanted this time to be different."
"What do you mean 'this time'?"
"I've always been kind of cold to you-"
"Kind of?" Sakura scoffed. "Try 'really'."
"Yeah, well," he breathed, "I want to give that to you now."
"You've been married to me for fourteen years and now you want to hold hands?"
Sasuke was never good with words. Instead of answering her question, he held out his hand as an invitation to her, even though he promised that he only would walk her up to this point in the journey back home. Spearmint eyes pierced through him, as though trying to read what was really on his mind, but his gaze did not waver, nor did his hand. If this was some sort of trap, Sakura felt herself starting to fall in. Her fingers itched for his touch, and before she knew it, she had not grabbed his hand, but had thrown herself into his arms and hugged him around the waist.
It was familiar, it was something she remembered well - but there was something missing, even when Sasuke moved his hands to stroke her hair. Tears began to prickle her eyes and she sniffled, causing Sasuke to make an attempt at reassuring her that he was home now, that he was going to stay beside her. Perhaps it was because his homecoming had been so abrupt that it gave her no time to really react, or perhaps it was because there was a part of her that was screaming at her that she was lying to herself, but she let him hold her.
Uttering half-whispered promises against her hair, she could feel him hold her tighter, but her eyes that were full of tears were not buried in his shoulder, but rather looking past them. They followed a trail of trees that eventually led up to a high peak in the short distance, otherwise known as the view of the Hokage Tower from where they stood. She watched the light that always stayed on, praying that it wouldn't go out again, and when it did, she felt her heart sink with the darkness.
"I promise to try," Sasuke whispered, "I swear."
If he's going to try, she thought to herself, eyes still glued to the Hokage Tower, then I have to, too.