It had been foolish, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. For that split second it seemed okay to hope, okay to believe, okay to stop worrying for just a moment, and then… But she had known. She had known ever since she saw the blankness in Sasuke’s eyes, and how easily he drew his blade, and how calm his voice had been when telling Naruto he was going to kill him (on a whim no less). She stopped believing that day; stopped hoping, but continued to pretend. Naruto needed her; he needed someone else to support his futile beliefs, someone else to aid him on his impossible journey.
But Sasuke wasn’t coming back, was never coming back, had never intended to come back. And she knew that, but it still hurt to have that ultimate confirmation. It still hurt to know that everything Naruto had strived to do was rendered completely useless. It still hurt to know that her constant façade of vigilance had just been wasted effort. And it really hurt to know that Sai was no longer just a temporary replacement. Team Seven would never be whole again; it was a paradise lost.
“He’ll come back,” Naruto said resolutely as they left the Hokage tower. He said it with certainty, but his face was pale and he was shaking slightly and his fists were clenched. Sakura said nothing.
Sakura wasn’t entirely sure that her actions could be excused for shock alone. She felt normal, if a little lost, but ultimately stable. She had invited Sai to join her and Naruto for ramen, resolute in bringing some sort of closure to this chapter in her life (and yet Team Seven remained whole and undivided in a picture by her bedside). Naruto had not been pleased.
“What the fuck is he doing here?” had been his greeting. The store owner had raised his eyebrows in surprise and was about to chide the hostile teen, but Sakura waved it off and Sai, like always, had not been slighted in the least. They sat, Sakura in the middle, Sai to her left, and ordered. Naruto mumbled harshly between mouthfuls, clearly intent on finishing his meal before they got there’s.
“If you don’t slow down you’re going to choke,” Sakura reprimanded, placing her chin in her palms, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. Naruto finished his meal with a slurp, glared at her, and slammed his change down on the counter before walking out. Sakura watched him go with a bemused expression. Sai arched an eyebrow.
“It’s nothing,” she replied to the unspoken question. Sai nodded slowly, processing the interaction. Sakura doubted he’d think anything of it later.
Naruto had made it very clear over the next few days that Sai was not to be within a twenty-foot radius of him. While his attitude and gestures bordered on cruel, perhaps even abusive, Sakura could not be angry with him. She had expected this. Nonetheless she provoked him by courting Sasuke’s replacement around town. It was not to entice jealousy; this was not a sexual matter. He had to face facts, damn it, and she was the only one who could get him to see them.
Still, she had to admit that there was a sick satisfaction in seeing Naruto glare at her, clench and unclench his fists because of her, seeing his hate for her. It lessened the ache somehow.
And when she realized that she knew she was in trouble.
You see, the problem was she never really stopped hoping.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked one day. Sakura was at the back entrance, staring at a bench. Naruto’s voice had startled her, but she remained still, unmoving. She just stared at something that no one else could see.
“I hate that bench,” she said quietly. “And I hate that wall, and that gate, and those stones,” her voice had steadily been growing louder, shriller. She was shaking and her eyes suddenly felt very wet. She swiped violently at the falling tears before hugging herself defensively. “…him. I hate him,” she choked out then, staring at the cobblestone under her feet.
Naruto tensed and un-tensed behind her and then suddenly he was embracing her. “He’ll come back,” he murmured softly. “I promise.”
For Sakura, that had been the last straw.
“Enough of you and your stupid promises!” she all but screeched, pulling away from him. “You failed, Naruto. We failed. It’s time you just accepted it.”
Naruto let her untangle herself from him and just looked at her. Sakura clenched her jaw and glared. Why was he doing this to her? Why? She looked away.
“Running away won’t solve anything,” he said after a moment. Sakura snorted, bringing a hand up to her face to wipe at the drying tears.
“’Seemed to have worked for him.”
“What are you talking about!?” Naruto exclaimed, taking any angry step toward her. Sakura noted his clenched fists from her peripheral vision. “He left for that snake bastard—“
“And he’s dead,” Sakura stated, raising her voice a little. “Sasuke killed him, or weren’t you listening?” Sakura turned to face him fully. “And we… You can’t even use that new technique of yours without risk of—“
“I know my limit, okay?” Naruto cut in defensively.
“Fine,” she stated hotly. “But there’s still the issue that Sasuke’s stronger than you and won’t hesitate to…” She couldn’t bring herself to say the next two words, but they hung between them in a heavy silence.
“That doesn’t matter.”
Sakura blinked. “What?”
“I don’t care,” Naruto replied. “He had the chance. He didn’t do it.”
“I don’t care,” Naruto repeated. “He didn’t do it.” Sakura pursed her lips and glared at him before bringing her fingers to her temple. Her head hurt. After a moment she turned her back on him to look at the gate. She was about to open her mouth to retort, but then Naruto’s arms were around her again, and his head was buried in her shoulder. She tensed.
“He has to come back,” Naruto whispered through a shuddery breath. Sakura stared hard at the gate and watched it blur. Her throat was tight as she asked, “Why?”
Naruto tightened his hold on her, but didn’t reply.
Within the last two and a half years, Sakura’s loyalties had shifted dramatically. Her childhood crush turned into an embodiment of regret and resentment. Her caring and all-knowing teacher was revealed to be a fraud in both areas. And Naruto? Naruto became a mystery; one that she desperately wanted to solve.
It struck Sakura as odd to be describing someone as loud and opinionated as Naruto a mystery, but that was what he was. How could he just not care that his best friend (and Sakura used that term lightly) had tried to kill him? Or that the villagers (herself included) had treated him like shit for the last fifteen years? Didn’t any of these things matter to him?
“No,” he had said. “Not any more.”
“But why?” she wanted to ask but never did. And maybe that was because she already knew. He’d been recognized by the people who mattered; by the people who cared to look beyond the surface, or rather, the circumstances that were out of his control so many years ago. Except for Sasuke. Or maybe Sasuke had recognized him for all his trials and tribulations in some fit of sentimentality before he left. Sakura couldn’t know for sure; the battle at the ‘Valley of the End’ was a sacred secret to Naruto, and the others had been too preoccupied fighting or dying elsewhere to know anything useful. And then Naruto left the village and ceased all contact with her, much like Sasuke, except he had permission to do so.
He became stronger and taller and more mature as the years past, but when he came back his smiles (which seemed rarer) held something tragic; something bittersweet that just broke Sakura’s heart. It was then, after being alone for two and half years and realizing to some degree what he had been through, that she really did want to make his dreams come true.
And that was his power. That was his charm.
“All right,” Sakura acquiesced sometime later to her ceiling. She was tired of staring at an outdated picture anyway.
“Sakura-chan?” Naruto questioned as the girl took a seat next to him at the ramen bar, chopsticks poised just below his mouth. He then noticed her companion. “What are you—“
“I told you before, Naruto,” she interrupted. “We’ll bring him back together.”
“When do we leave?” Sai asked, staring at the other teen intently. Naruto fumbled his chopsticks, eliciting a slight snort from Sakura. He smiled sheepishly at her, his eyes echoing a silent ‘thank you.’ Sakura smiled back.
This time it was genuine. This time it was all genuine.