~ Afire ~
"Aren't you a bit too young to be a doctor, Sakura?"
One of these days, she would throw something into his face. Her fists. A table. A very hard volleyball, wherever she would get it from. Sakura furrowed her brows and glared at Sasuke, who was sporting the sneer that seemed to be plastered onto his face whenever he was not glowering. She let out a puff of air and crossed her arms. "Evidently not, Sasuke." Too bad her voice was not able to bear this edge of condescension and arrogance that dripped so naturally from his. "Or do you think I'm just a nurse playing doctor?"
"Hn. Who knows? How old can you be? Twenty-eight?"
"Twenty-nine," she corrected through her teeth. She slammed the syringe into his vein and noted with satisfaction the pained grunt that sprung from his lips. "Think what you will. It doesn't change a thing."
The man growled. His abysmal eyes devoured her and sent a shiver down her spine, but instead of replying he sunk back into the bed, seemingly not caring for the blood she drew from his arm in a pace just a tad faster than prescribed. But when she almost yanked the needle away, he winced and gave her a judging look. "You must be a nurse. Only nurses are so inept at taking blood."
"And you would know?" Despite her words, Sakura flushed in embarrassment. A sting of guilt made her wrap the clear adhesive around the puncture and cotton ball more gently than she had initially intended.
Sasuke cocked an eyebrow up. "Naturally."
"Naturally," she echoed under her breath. "Guess a bounty hunter is a regular at the hospital?"
Now, he frowned. "Only the bad ones-" His frown deepened when he realized the implication, his eyes gave a glare.
Sakura almost chuckled spitefully, but she covered the sound with a clearing of her throat. "We wouldn't have to constantly re-open your veins if you let me install a catheter."
"I'm not an electronic product you install things into," he snapped. "I said 'no' to the catheter how many times now? Five? Are you deaf or just stupid? How did you even become a doctor like that?"
The insult did not lose its sting even if he repeated it. Sakura scowled. She almost ripped the robe off his chest and pressed the ice-cold stethoscope against his fair skin, grinning to herself when he hissed. "Deep breaths now, Sasuke." His muscles moved beneath her fingers, spanned against her touch, and for a second she blushed. Determinately, Sakura bit her cheek and spoke over her thumping heart, "I'll have you know that I graduated with top grades from medical school."
Something flickered in Sasuke's eyes. He opened his mouth. Closed it again. Then, almost tentatively were it not for the edge his voice bore permanently, "And how old were you?"
"Twenty-four," Sakura replied. She stepped back from his exposed body and grabbed the file, her eyes running over his test results and the nurses' comments. "I had been performing my residency training simultaneously in my second and final year of med school and continued in several departments until I received my board certification in internal medicine half a year ago."
"Second and final year of medical school?" Sasuke echoed with a doubtful frown.
"Yes," Sakura preempted him before he could annoy her further as she scribbled down a handful of notes concerning his diet and exercise. "I finished in half of the time. Similarly, I was through with undergraduate and bachelor early. So you can rest assured that you are in best hands." Her smile was sour at best, and Sasuke's expression only reflected that.
He gave her a long look, eyed the blue bruise on his right arm and then moved his oculars back towards her. Silence. She would have moved away, but the intensity of his regard would not let her. "Hn. Now, aren't we aspirational? I wonder whatever has you so afire for your profession."
Choke on your self-assured sounds, bastard. She chucked the file to the side and sat down with a sigh. There were still some questions left unanswered, even with him having been conscious for three days now, and she dreaded raising them. But she had no choice, and even though Shizune had offered several times to relieve her of this bothersome patient, she had decided to be responsible for him. Even if he was a murderer.
"How are your wounds?"
"Why don't you tell me, doctor?"
"I meant to ask how they feel," Sakura elaborated. "Data alone doesn't tell me enough about your status."
The man shrugged. "I'm alive. The tablets you have me take eliminate the pain well enough. My temperature is normal, as is my heartbeat. I can chew, swallow and digest the abominations you call food and serve here, and when the nurse comes to help me stretch my upper body, I can send her away because I don't need her help." Another shrug. "Is that enough?"
No, it's not, Sakura thought with aggravation. "A very medical, objective explanation. But how are you feeling? I will be frank. You were brutally attacked and died thrice during the operation." She imagined he pricked up his ears at that. "While taking care of your physical well-being is my priority, your mental state is just as much my concern."
He raised an eyebrow. "You want to know whether I'm having a trauma or shock?"
Delicate words. So, so delicate words, and Sakura hated them. There was a reason she usually allocated mental care to the psychologist one floor below. But she only needed to remind herself of his file and the nurses' comments which read 'Does not communicate nor respond to questions' to cast that idea aside. So instead, she nodded. "Yes."
"Tch." It almost sounded like a dismissive laugh. "You know nothing of a bounty hunter's training, then. Something like this won't make me lose it."
"But it should." Sakura was trying not to raise her voice, but could not keep it from shaking. "Every normal human being would be terrified. The way you were attacked… The way I suppose you were attacked, because you have not told me anything about it at all." She forced her eyes to keep contact with his dangerously empty ones. As if her words and the memory meant nothing to him. "I need to know more about this. Who assaulted you? Why? Through which means? How long did the attack last? What did you feel during that time?"
"Nothing." It was the answer she had dreaded all this time, and Sasuke presented it as if they were talking about the weather. His facial muscles did not move when he continued, "I am entitled and also urged to retain those information and details. They have no relation to your work, so pay it no mind. You can be satisfied with the apparent fact that I suffer no trauma nor shock from the fight."
"How can you call it a fight?!" Sakura jumped from her stool without a thought and her voice was louder than it should be. But as she looked at Sasuke's terribly neutral eyes, she could not help it. "Everything we can conduct from your wounds and status during the operation suggests that it was no fight, but an assault! You bore no signs of resistance whatsoever, else your arms and hands would have been damaged a lot more severely. The cuts across your torso indicate how you just let it happen!" She drew a quivering breath and shook her head. The step she took towards him was small, timid. "Why? Why would you let someone hurt you like that without fighting back? Why were you crawling through the alleys instead of using your perfectly fine cellphone to call an ambulance? Why did you push me away when I tried to help you? Sasuke!" She yelled his name as an accusation to focus his attention on her; as if he was not staring at her with wide, unbelieving eyes already. The next question left her only quietly, shyly. Like it did not want to be heard. "Were you trying to die?"
There. Just for a second, his eyes evaded hers. It shattered all her efforts and hopes, and above everything else it hurt. Sakura could not explain why, but her heart clenched and she felt every time it pumped blood through her body.
So you did, she thought with a gulp. You tried to die.
"Are you done?" His voice was flat. No, not only flat; it was cold. Angry? Hateful. The wide-eyed stare had made place for an impassive look that seemed to see through her.
Sakura made a step back. "I..."
"You annoy me." Sasuke spoke so slowly that she could not miss his words even if she tried. "Your pity and interest in me is annoying. A true doctor would respect her patient's privacy instead of pestering him the way you pester me. Shouldn't you be happy I'm not in shock? Wouldn't that allow you to tick off one more concern from your list? Why are you the one yelling?" He paused for a second. Took her in with his abysmal eyes. Devoured her raw soul until Sakura felt naked and vulnerable. "What are you feeling, Sakura?"
She did not know, and that was the scary part. Sakura was staring in silence, way too long for her to somehow squirm free of his words. All she knew was that the thought of Sasuke deliberately throwing away his own life pained her more than it should. And that she felt guilty for having saved him. Not because she wondered whether he had wanted to be saved, but because of what he was and everything he stood for. And she felt even more guilty for feeling that way.
His stare set her ablaze. His lips opened to release another question she did not want to hear. She needed him to stop, so she spouted the first thing that crossed her mind. "Why are you so afraid?"
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Huh?"
"All I am trying to do is help you. Even though we clearly don't get along, I am working my ass off for you. Who do you think has paid for your stay before we were able to sort things out with your insurance?"
Sakura, shut up.
"When you died during the operation, the others gave up on you. You had bled so much, we were running out of infusions to give you because you kept expulsing them, we still hadn't removed all the bullets or sealed all the wounds and your heart kept still despite several tries with the defibrillator. They wanted to shut the machines down. Note you as 'deceased'. Send your corpse to the morgue. But I insisted on going on!"
"And when you woke up after only four weeks already, I was trying so hard to be nice to you, to take away your fear even though you scared me. Even when you told me what you do, I insisted on staying your executive physician."
"So why are you like this?!" She had stingy tears in her eyes, her face was flushed deep red and yet the words would not stop. "What have I done to you that you react this way? Why are you nagging and biting and snarling whatever I do? What is wrong with you?! And why do I even care?!"
Sakura! Finally, her inner voice was heard and Sakura stopped, clasping her hands over her mouth with shocked eyes. But the words were out, he had heard every single one of them, and now his eyes were hidden behind the spiky fringe.
Oh, what have I done…
She knew she had to say something. Anything. Apologize, first and foremost, because he had been right. No matter his evident psychological problems, she was the doctor here, the bigger person. She was supposed to deal with and take care of him. He was not the first patient who angered her, though he was undeniably the first to do it in such extremes. But that was no excuse, and a brief flickering look to the spreading bruise on his arm reminded Sakura of how much she had messed up.
"Sasuke..." she tried, but her voice was a meek and pathetic thing, drowned by the growl suddenly springing from his lips.
She had heard this twice before. Once in a slight variation the first time they met, with him trying to shake her off despite nearly dying in her arms. And then after he had woken up and laid eyes on her. It had been the first word he ever spoke to her consciously.
He must really hate me.
Sakura gulped. She made a step forward, one hand at her chest, trying to clasp for something that was not there. "Sasuke, listen, I..."
"I told you to leave!" he barked. Despite him paling at the try, he stemmed himself up, swung his legs from the bed and threatened to rise. "What are you thinking, you idiotic woman?! You have no idea-"
"Don't get up!" Sakura panicked and jumped forward, pressing him down even though he thrashed against her. His skin was warm, his scent invading her, but even though her heart skipped a beat she had no time to wonder about it. Sasuke shoved her away with a growl in his ribcage, vibrating against her own. But if he got up now, he would easily collapse, and she had to prevent that from happening at all costs. "Calm down! Please!" And for lack of a better idea, she slung her arms around him.
Immediately, all movement ceased from his body. No sound left his lips. He was frozen, like a statue, and Sakura did not dare let go of him to check up on his face. Instead, her lips began to form words rising from the bottom of her heart. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I said horrible things and I… I'm sorry. Please don't try to get up. You need rest. I'll leave immediately, once you lay down. So rest, okay? Please?"
He did not answer. Instead, she felt his arms rise. She wanted to question his action, back away so he had the space he obviously needed – and then, he hugged her. One of his hands cradled her head, pressed it softly against his neck and she did not resist. She heard him breathe against her ear, felt how his other hand curled around her waist. Noticed how he stroke some strands of her hair, feather-lightly.
Heat rose from her stomach and shot up her throat. Her heart burned. Every pump thudded against her ears. Her skin went up in goosebumps. And her grip around him tightened. The motions came naturally to her, like an instinct. One of her palms traveled upwards to nestle between his shoulder blades, fitting perfectly. Her other hand cupped his strong shoulder, fingers curling around the skin and muscle. She moved the tips across the membrane, burning with the sensation and barely resisting the urge to knead and grasp tightly. Her nose was pressed against the tendons in his throat, and from that rose an enticing, familiar scent that clouded her mind. A sigh left her lips, and she could not help but lean against him, melt against the frame that felt as if she had known it for her entire life.
His lips released a shuddering breath. Again, he stroke her hair, more strongly this time, up and down, fingertips massaging her scalp and leaving a tingling response along her skin and in her stomach. He pulled her hips close until she almost sat on his lap, and yet it was not close enough, there was still too much space between them, so he lowered his head against hers, his cheek resting on her temple, and a quiet sound spilled from his mouth.
Sakura closed her eyes. She absorbed the warmth that radiated of his chest and neck, hummed against his soothing touch. All her irritation, anger and fear dissipated as if it had never existed in the first place. In his arms, she was at peace. She felt like she belonged there, had always belonged there. It was familiar in a way that made her heart ache and stir. The only coherent thought that could surface amidst her entranced mind was how she did not want it to end. Ever.
"Sakura..." He mumbled her name with a tone of voice she had never heard from him before. It was soft. Tender. A murmur, almost lost in her pink strands, and he moved his head until his lips rested against her red ear. "Sakura..." His mouth moved further, scraped along her jaw and cheek, the tip of his nose tickling her skin.
Instinctively, she raised her head and took a sharp inhale. His lips hovered before hers. The fascinating eyes were hooded. He was close, so close. His scent was all she could smell, his body heat all she could feel, his hot breath against her mouth all she could taste and her eyes threatened to flutter closed. Her heartbeat was thumping in her ears, pulsated through her entire body. Heat pooled in her stomach and she unknowingly wet her lips, a sound sitting on them she could not identify. She leaned forward -
- and Sasuke leaned back. Just a bit so their eyes could meet with enough distance to make out the other's expression. He wanted to say something, she could tell, his eyes sought for confirmation within hers. But when his breath left her mouth, the spell broke.
Something shattered, and as emeralds gazed up into fathomless onyxes, Sakura regained control of her mind. Almost immediately, her face flared up in crimson shades, and she jerked back, the only part left touching him her fingertips which refused to be removed, glued to his hot skin.
A shadow crossed his eyes. His hand disentangled itself from her locks, the other released her waist. Her skin prickled, ached for his touch. She had to fight the urge to throw herself back at him against logic and reason, to place her head back into the crook where it had been before, beneath his jaw and lightly above his collarbone. To follow the unspoken invitation his lips were offering, agape by a little and still in a held breath.
But then, Sasuke stirred. Leaned away from her completely and erected the facade she had caught a glimpse behind. His voice was throaty, and he did not look into her eyes. "You should go, Sakura."
And she fled.
"How unlike you to come over on such short notice." Shikamaru looked down at her past his sharp nose, his hand ushered her inside.
Sakura gave him a sheepish smile. "Sorry, sorry. I just... needed someone to talk to."
"Hm." With an automatic movement, he helped Sakura out of her light cardigan – an item she wore more for the looks and less for the temperature – and hung it next to the door. After pointing for her to go into the living room, he disappeared into the kitchen briefly to come back with a tray of nettle tea. Settling down before her, he took a small sip before asking, "Well?"
Sakura's head snapped back from admiring the spacious and well-kept garden outside of the small house and she looked at Shikamaru with eyes of concern. There was no pretentious smile on her lips – she knew she did not need it in front of him. A hundred possible phrases were sitting at the tip of her tongue and fought for recognition. She chose the most innocuous one. "My gun-shot patient woke up."
"Ah, him?" Shikamaru started to place the shogi pieces atop of the table. "That's good to hear, I guess. A bit early, though."
"Very early." Sakura furrowed her brows. "I would not have expected him to wake up for at least another month. He seems to be stable enough, though I'd rather he doesn't get up for a couple of weeks. It's a miracle, really." She was blabbering, she noticed herself.
But Shikamaru just nodded. It was one of his most admirable traits; he was not the type to rush or chastise. He motioned for her to begin the match and Sakura obliged. Silence ensued. It was only interrupted by the soft clicking of pieces set against the wooden table, or the sound of teacups placed back against their trivets. Slowly the storm within her heart settled. While Shikamaru rested his fingertips against each other – his typical thinking pose – Sakura found peace and calm in observing the garden, its lush green grass, tall trees, trimmed bushes and colorful flowers. Her mind began to fill with thoughts of possible moves instead of worries and confusion about a certain troublesome man.
I really like this place, Sakura acknowledged. The nettle tea, despite heating up her already warm self, was pleasing on the tongue and cleansing to her body. It reminds me of the good old days. Mom was so shocked when I told her I'd visit a man seven years older on my own. The tiniest chuckle broke from Sakura's lips, but Shikamaru was used to her occasionally wandering thoughts and paid it no mind.
Well, I can't say I blame her – I was nineteen at that time. Still, the notion of Shikamaru doing anything obscene toward her was so absurd it made her close her eyes in quiet laughter.
The man lifted his head, his eyes glistening in gray-brown alertness, and after a little twitch of his lips to acknowledge her bemusement he said, "So? Want to tell me a bit more about your patient?"
She opened her mouth. Then hesitated. Where was she supposed to begin? Thinking about the event a few hours back was enough to set her cheeks ablaze, her stomach tingled nervously and she frowned to herself. Just what had gotten into me at that time? I mean, the 'hug' I gave him was necessary. He would have tried to stand otherwise. But everything that followed…
Sakura shook her head. She could not even think about the way they had held on to one another. About how her heart had raced and her mind nearly blacked out. No matter how she twist and turned it, she had reciprocated his touches, his embrace. And then, in that final moment when his face had been so close that she could count the raven lashes framing his enthralling eyes, they-
"Sakura." Shikamaru's voice cut through her thoughts like a whip, though much more gentle. "I can't read your mind. You should know that by now."
Another sheepish smile tugged at her lips and she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "Sorry. It's just… I don't know where to start."
"How about at the beginning?"
She almost laughed at the frank obviousness. But it helped. "Right after he woke up, we had a fight. We constantly have fights." Her opposite raised an eyebrow and she reluctantly elaborated, reciting tidbits of their conversation. The day he had woken up and snarled her name, how he constantly questioned her accountability, his mockery. After her initial hesitation, Sakura talked herself into a near rage, going into vivid detail about his arrogant body language and condescending attitude. She moved on to this noon's conversation and explained how confused she felt at his obvious indifference towards the assault, how it had angered her and how she had yelled at him. All the while, Shikamaru listened attentively, not raising a single question nor making a sound.
But then, when she got to the point where he had tried to stand, her voice died. Her face was red and got redder still, and she stared mutely at her third cup of tea.
Shikamaru sighed. "I see." He took another casual sip from his drink, swirling the cup around as he thought.
"She'll get mad at you if you spill it." The words left Sakura's lips without much of a thought, and she gave a weak smile.
Shikamaru glared up. "Tch. You women are all so troublesome." Nonetheless, he put the cup down, and his gaze wandered to peer at the garden. "So he's an arrogant idiot," he said with a bored expression. "And? It's not like you constantly deal with saints. Though I'll admit he takes the cake."
"Right?" Sakura sought for confirmation and sighed. "I don't even know why I get so worked up about him. There's just… something."
She could not tell him. Not only because his 'occupation' froze the blood in her veins. She had sworn an oath; her patient's secrets were her secrets. Her hands shook and her stomach burned with an intensity that made her want to vomit. She shuddered.
Suddenly, Shikamaru got up. He casually strode to the blinds and closed them against the lovely afternoon sun, then wandered over to the door and locked it with a click. Then, he sat before her again, took a pointed sip from his drink and Sakura remembered.
"You can tell me everything. Always."
She nodded to herself. If there is one person I can tell about Sasuke… can tell everything about Sasuke, it's him. She felt guilty. This would mark the second time she would make use of Shikamaru's discretion; the first having been an alcoholic mother who, through her irresponsible behavior, drove her children into depression and drug addiction. During that night, she had cried in his arms because she could not help them.
She hoped she would not have to resort to that again. Before her strength left her, she pressed forth through gritted teeth, "He kills people."
The sip got stuck in Shikamaru's throat. He coughed several times, then, wiping his mouth with a tissue, he carefully looked her up and down and asked, "Are you sure?"
"He told me." Sakura's voice was hoarse. "On the first day, he showed me his papers. His license reads Bounty Hunter, but he himself dubbed it Bounty Killer."
Her opposite frowned. "'Are you joking?' - is what I'd ask. But that's not your joking face." He heaved a sigh and scratched the back of his head, the spiky ponytail atop of it sent into a wiggle. "Now that's a rare occupation."
A snort broke from Sakura's lips. "Yeah – 'occupation'." She shook her head, and anger replaced part of her horror. "He is my exact opposite, Shikamaru. I try to save people, and he kills them. I… saved a murderer's life."
"Hm." Shikamaru took another sip. "I see. In that case, it's no wonder you hate his guts. Assuming he has spoken the truth."
"You think he lied?"
He shrugged. "Maybe."
"What about his papers?"
"Forged?" When she frowned and shook her head, Shikamaru sighed. He leaned back and looked at the ceiling. "I don't know, Sakura. From all you told me, he sounds much like the personified arrogance. It could be just his way of appearing tougher than he actually is."
Sakura contemplated her friend's words for a moment. He does have a point. But... She shook her head. "No. He's not that type of person."
Shikamaru raised his eyebrows. "Can you truly tell that already? You just met him."
"I know," Sakura agreed. But something within her suddenly dissented, her heart raced, her mind was a blur of incoherent images and her eyes became wet without a warning. A shudder made her body tremble and she bit her lip. Again, she remembered their embrace. The need to hold on to him. The moment they almost kissed.
"Sakura?" Shikamaru frowned, his voice interlaced by worry. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head and pressed one hand against her temple. "I don't know… Today, we… hugged." She made it sound like a disease. "When he was about to stand up, I threw my arms around him so he wouldn't, and then we… Well" - she made a vague motion with her hand - "we stayed like that."
Shikamaru's eyes narrowed. "What did he do?"
"He hugged me. For real, I mean." She blushed madly, and her voice stuttered when she gave the details she tried to forget. "He stroke my hair. Cradled my head. Pulled me closer to him and… mumbled my name." Her ears must have been bright red by then, but Shikamaru's silence encouraged her to go on, so she explained how his lips had wandered across her cheek and halted before her own. "We… almost kissed," she ended weakly. She was ashamed, though she did not know why. Definitely not because of the rule that prohibited relationships between patients and doctors.
For a while, her friend said nothing. His fingers were playing with a shogi piece. When he spoke, his voice was different. "Do you think he is from… back then?"
She gave a shrug, shook her head, nodded, and gave a grunt before she buried her face in her arms, propped up on her knees. "I don't know! I can't know," she added quietly. "Maybe? But wouldn't he say something then? It's not like I have changed much since I was seventeen."
"Except for the hair." It was a meek try at lightening the mood, but Sakura granted him a smile nonetheless. The man tugged at his trademark ponytail and exhaled loudly. "But yes, you're right. It's unlikely he knows you from before and chooses not to say anything. You still carry your late parents' name and have quite the memorable appearance. But what other explanations do you have? That your serial murder patient developed a serious crush on you?" He shook his head. "That might explain his behavior, but not yours."
Sakura nodded. "He doesn't look anything like my ex, either. And he's not that handsome." Shikamaru gave her that look and she corrected, "Okay. Maybe he is. But I had handsome patients before and I never felt the need to hug them. Or be hugged by them. Or whatever." She grunted again, wailed a bit even, and accepted the fourth cup of tea with a sigh. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it." Shikamaru stayed next to her, and even though it was not his typical behavior, he rubbed her back.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I must look really pathetic. Maybe I should just ask him."
Shikamaru looked at her sharply. "But you haven't yet. Why?"
"You know why," she shot back. But she spelled it out nonetheless, because they both needed it. "I'm scared."
They sighed simultaneously. Shikamaru took a sip from his drink and Sakura mimicked the motion. A click when the man set up his next move on the board she had almost forgotten. She took a second to consider the game, if only to divert her attention, and after a few moves, Shikamaru left her side and sat down on the other side again. At least her eyes were not stinging treacherously anymore.
"And what do I do now?" Her question echoed in the quiet room.
"You don't have many options, really. 'Talk to him about it' would be one, but you don't want that. 'Ignore the feelings and wait until he's gone' is the other, but I somewhat doubt it'll satisfy you. Though it would definitely be the best." Shikamaru frowned, reconsidered the piece he was about to set down and chose a different spot. "'Wait and see what happens' is the last one. Maybe he'll speak up."
She faintly noticed her mistake when she moved her rook, but it was too late and she barely cared, anyway. "So you think he's from before my adoption?"
He gave her a quick glance. "It doesn't matter what I think. And honestly, it doesn't even matter if he is. It all comes down to how you two deal with it. Maybe his mind is so off the hooks that he confuses you with someone he killed."
Sakura flicked a piece at him. "Very funny, Shikamaru."
"For fun you'd have to go to Naruto's," he deadpanned. "Though I heard he bruised his arm again, so the yo-yo's out of the question."
She almost chuckled at that remark. "I just don't… know how to deal with him. If only he did not call my name like that; every time he does, it makes me lose my mind." She forced a laugh. "The way I'm saying it sounds so wrong."
"Sounds like you were in love with him," Shikamaru stated plainly. Sakura's head jerked up, her face suddenly, treacherously, blushing, but the man already raised his hands. "I said 'sounds' and 'were'. No need to get all angry at me." He sighed. "Really, with that temper you're almost as bad as my wife."
"What did you say?"
Shikamaru winced. "Speak of the devil," he muttered under his breath. He used the sofa behind him as leverage to rise and trudged over to the locked door from behind of which the voice had sounded. He cast Sakura a final, confirming glance, and unlocked after a nod.
Immediately, Temari poured into the room. She slung one arm around his neck and grinned widely, though not without a hint of aggravation as Shikamaru snuck out of her grip and sat down. "Seriously, I leave the house for a couple of hours and my husband badmouths me?"
"I could badmouth you even if you just left to take a shower," he pointed out, his expression caught between a grin and a raised eyebrow.
Temari pinched his cheek – quite forcefully, judging by the howl leaving Shikamaru's lips – then she turned her blonde head with the four ponytails to their guest. "Hi, Sakura, how have you been? I hope Shikamaru hasn't bored you too much in my absence?"
Sakura chuckled. "Not at all."
"If he does, tell me," Temari insisted, pulling a sitting pillow close to rest next to her husband, who was rubbing his cheek and muttered 'troublesome'. "It's not too late to punch some manners into his thick head."
Shikamaru glared at his wife. "I like myself the way I am, thank you."
"Of course you do," Temari said with a theatrical sigh and pushed him off to grin at Sakura, "So, you're in love? Who's the lucky-"
"No!" Sakura protested, her ears burning. For a moment, her green eyes flared like wildfire, causing Shikamaru to shrink under her accusing look, and she almost stuttered in hastiness when she explained the situation properly. The only thing she left out was Sasuke's occupation; this was an information reserved solely for Shikamaru and her files.
"I see. Jeez, you shouldn't say such misleading things, Shikamaru." Temari gave her husband – who seemed utterly disinterested – a glare, then turned back to Sakura with a frown. "Still, I don't get why this should be a problem. He'll leave the hospital eventually, and if he's too much of a pain to deal with, just pass him onto another doctor."
Sakura shook her head. "I can't do that."
"Because I... I feel responsible for him," she admitted. Her sigh came in sync with Shikamaru's, and she gave her dark-haired friend a surprised look. "What?"
He pointed at her with her former rook, an item he had been playing with while Temari had given her advice. "That attitude's gonna end you sooner or later, Sakura. You always get too attached to your patients. That one time, for example – the man with lung cancer."
Sakura winced at the mere memory. Temari nudged her husband reproachfully and Shikamaru went on with a softer tone, "It almost killed you as much as him. Heck, even I started feeling bad for him, from your talking. No, don't you apologize," he preempted Sakura when she parted her lips. "You know I don't mind listening to your troubles."
"Thank you, Shikamaru," Sakura mumbled, a sad smile twisting her lips. She exchanged a brief glance with Temari, who knew at least roughly the depth of information the two shared, and the blonde inclined her head.
But Shikamaru waved her gratitude away. "What I'm getting at is this: You are one of the hardest-working doctors I know, and while this is usually good for your patients, it can end up badly for you. Especially when you have a case like him, you should distance yourself." He crossed his arms and gave her a challenging look with his narrow eyes. "You cannot save everyone, Sakura. But you can protect yourself."
She sighed. "How often have we talked about this now, Shikamaru?"
"How often do I need to tell you for you to understand?" he shot back, and his surfacing grin was met with one of hers.
Defensively, she lifted her palms. "I know, I know. And you're probably right."
"Probably," she reinforced her statement. "Accept it, Shikamaru; despite your brains, you cannot always be right."
"I second that," Temari smirked, purposefully ignoring her husband's glare.
Shikamaru snorted, "Maybe. But it looks like it's my win again." He motioned at the board, and Sakura gasped upon finding herself checkmated.
"When did you..?" she whispered in surprise.
"That's what you get for getting too involved with your patients." He leaned back, obviously pleased with himself, and one of his arms curled around his chuckling wife.
Sakura pouted, but there was a smile tugging at her lips as well. "Really, Shikamaru, you make it sound as if I'm the one in the wrong here."
Shikamaru's gray-brown eyes narrowed lightly. "Maybe you are. But there's no point going in circles with you. Just do what you think is right." With another snort, he added, "Not like you wouldn't."
Sakura grinned, removing her king from the board as a sign of defeat. "Exactly. And now, rematch. I won't leave before I've beaten you."
It took her two more matches to hold true to her words. After watching them play for a while, Temari had excused herself and retreated into her study, occasionally coming down to hand the two players some beverages and snacks. Every time she did, Sakura had to smile to herself.
Temari might still be blunt and out-spoken, but ever since she and Shikamaru got married, she has become softer. Her green eyes met Temari's teal ones, and the woman with the sand-colored hair cocked an eyebrow up.
"You don't like chestnuts?" she asked, referring to the small bowl she had just placed next to the board.
"No, no, I like them! Thank you, Temari."
Her response was a brief grin. Temari turned to leave, her fingertips sliding across Shikamaru's shoulder, and the man, his brow furrowed in concentration, released his left hand to hold on to her fleeting fingers even if it was just for a moment. The sight alone was enough to make Sakura smile again.
Darkness was settling outside when Sakura finally rose, her legs stiff from all the sitting, and she dreadfully remembered how she had to wake up early the next morning. And with that, she also remembered her patient, and she unconsciously gnawed her bottom lip.
"Stop that," Shikamaru lectured her with crossed arms.
"What? Oh, sorry." Sakura released her lip with a guilty smile, and her friend heaved a sigh.
"Is it really bothering you that much?" Shikamaru's voice had an unbelieving tone woven within it, and when Sakura gave a small nod he sighed once again. His hand retreated from the cardigan he had intended on giving back to her, and instead took hold of her shoulder.
"Listen," he said intently. "It's okay to block him off. It's okay if you don't want to treat him anymore. You already saved his life – you don't owe him any friendship or guidance. If it unnerves you so much, it's not worth it."
Sakura worked up a smile. "I know. It's just that..." Her voice died out, and Shikamaru narrowed his eyes.
"I can't explain it," she finally said with a helpless shrug. Her skin was covered in goosebumps, and she shuddered.
Shikamaru reached past her and drew forth her cardigan, placing it around her shoulders in one grand motion. "Damn June nights and its sudden cold." He gave the outside a glare – though both knew it was not responsible for Sakura's prickling skin. "Shall I give you a ride? It's quite a way to your apartment."
"No, no. Thanks, but I'll be fine. The fresh air might help clear my head."
Shikamaru lifted an eyebrow, doubt plain visible on his comely face. But instead of insisting on it, he gave Sakura a brief hug and then watched her disappear into the night silently, standing still as stone. As he crumbled his brow, he said, "What do you think?"
Behind him, Temari pursed her lips. "So you heard me?" She rose from her tip-toeing position and rested her head on his shoulder. "I'm on your side on the matter," she said after a thoughtful pause, knowing exactly what was going on inside her husband's mind without him explaining it. "They might know one another, they might not. The most important thing is how they deal with it. Though, considering how scared she had always been, I'd rather he was just some random guy she has a huge attraction to."
"Right?" Shikamaru said, stroking the hands his wife had slung around his mid.
"She seems especially frightened of him," she continued. "I don't know what you were talking about before I came and I will not ask you about it. That's a thing between the two of you. But from the way she acts, I really don't feel good about this."
"Hm." Shikamaru's eyes gleamed with intensity as he stared into the dark. Then he turned. "Let's go inside, I don't want you to catch a cold; you were up and out the entire day already."
Temari grinned smugly at him. "Ho, are you worried? Maybe you want to carry me up to the bedroom, huh?" She spread her arms, encouraging him to pick her up with a challenging – even mocking – smile, but Shikamaru just snorted and shoved her inside.
Before he closed the door and went after Temari, who walked ahead with a swinging of her hips he knew all too well, he shot a last look after Sakura, no longer discernible in the setting night. His lips were a tight line and, as if his wife was still listening, he said, "In the end, it doesn't matter whether we feel good about it or not. It won't change the truth."
Sasuke did not move his head when the nurse entered. It was dark outside and his dinner consisted of a gray mush of something they euphemistically called rice pudding. He ran his spoon across the mess and could smell the amounts of sugar inside it. Another night without food, he judged.
The woman cleaned the last remnants of his lunch away and proceeded to check up on his bedding when she gasped. "Uchiha-san, what has happened to your arm?!" She turned on the light above his bed, as if the blue and black bruise in the crook of his right arm was not visible enough. "This looks bad. Did Haruno-sensei hurt you during the blood extraction?" Her fingers reached out to take hold of the arm, but Sasuke shrugged her off.
His eyes glared daggers her way. "I forgot to press the cotton on the puncture." Said cotton crunched in the pocket of his robe and he reminded himself to flush it down the toilet once this woman was gone. "The doctor told me about it, but I couldn't be arsed. Now leave me alone already." It was the first time he talked to one of the nurses.
She stiffened and made a quick step back. "Y-yes, Uchiha-san. I'm sorry. Ring for us, should you need anything." With another bow, she left the room.
Sasuke rose. He could only take small, careful steps, holding on to a silly walking frame, but he made his way to the toilet and dumped both his 'meal' and the ball of cotton into the ceramic bowl. He tried to ignore the horrific pain in his right arm as he laid down and instead guided his mind to the situation a few hours before. Her hair. Her skin. Her scent. Her lips.
That night, he cried again.
A/N: Finally. I've longed to upload this chapter ever since I finished it. Fun Fact: The SasuSaku scene was not planned. At all. But as I was trying to work out their fight and give Sakura a proper reason to complain at Shika's, this happened, and I have to admit I am quite fond of it. It is dramatic, filled with emotions and hopefully reflects just how much both of them are suffering, despite Sakura having no concrete idea about what's going on. The ShikaSaku scene also got revamped, presenting a slightly more empathetic Shikamaru. Something about the thought of the two of them being best friends really appeals to me. But what about you? How did you like this chapter, the kiss that almost happened? Every reviewer gets a special place in my heart and will receive digital cookies and hugs. The next chapter will not take long to upload; and then, you get to see Sasuke's point of view concerning the whole ordeal - and him making an agonizing decision. ~Ruska