title: underneath the skin, there's a human

summary: Sakura has become proficient at loving from a distance.

dedication: for Les(lie), my mars bar, my tacquito, my beautiful soldier girl, on her 22nd birthday. keep stomping on all the idiots with steel-capped boots, ilu

underneath the skin, there's a human

He stares a lot these days, Sakura's noticed – but then, where Sasuke is concerned, there isn't much she doesn't. Notice, that is.

It's an old habit, one which floods back as if no time has passed between them at all and she's too resigned to be surprised. Hasn't she always been painfully aware of him wherever he stands in the room? It takes nothing more than the quirk of his mouth, or curiously upturned eyes to set her nerves on fire, and even after four years and hundreds and thousands of miles of distance, apparently this hasn't changed one bit.

"He's late," Naruto whines, already heartily tucking into his second bowl of miso, and Sakura doesn't disabuse him of the notion. Instead, she leans forward on the counter blocking the blonde's view of the street with her arms and props her chin on one hand.

"He'll get here when he gets here," she replies softly, content just to watch him for a little while without being seen in turn. Sakura decides she likes the way he stares now, the small pinch between his dark eyes which speaks of concentration. She likes how still his gaze is, how intent.

"Stupid bastard."

Sakura smiles, brushes her hair out of her eyes with a hand which does not tremble. There's a steadiness in her bones now, which was born in the depths of war. She's held a hundred thousand lives in her palms, in the miniscule space between each hand-sign and never flinched at the weight of all that death.

"Stop grumbling," Sasuke says, dropping into the empty seat beside her with the fluid grace of a cat. He moves differently from the way she remembers.

"Stop sneaking up on people!" Naruto screeches, half-choking on a mouthful of noodles, and for a moment it's like nothing has changed – nostalgia pays her a visit of the good kind, for a change.

And if there are sparks in the air between her arm and Sasuke's, if her stomach flutters nervously with every tiny turn of his head, if there is a weight to the silence now, well. She's always been good at pretending.

She doesn't have nightmares anymore.

Ever since the war, Sakura hasn't dreamt of a shadowed forest and a voice she cannot seem to find. She doesn't dream of black ink creeping over Sasuke's skin.

What she has instead is this; sleepless nights at the hospital and quiet mornings by Ino's side, hand-in-hand, flowers at the memorial stone.

"You can stop hovering," she says, not looking up from the stack of paperwork in front of her. "I know you're there, Sasuke."

A snort, and then – and then his shadow unfurls itself from the corner of her office and moves to lean over her.

"You shouldn't be able to do that," he accuses, and Sakura chooses not to mention that her sensing him has nothing to do with chakra and everything to do with the prickling sensation his presence ignites in her skin. Instead she bites her tongue, hard.

"Your eyes are bothering you, aren't they?"

Silence. She doesn't push him for an answer he's reluctant to give, doesn't pry at his walls in an effort to drag the light in. It's different now, after all. They both are.

"A little," he finally admits.

She doesn't wait for him to ask her to take a look – she already knows it's the reason he's come, the only reason he would ever seek her out here in her private domain.


"Hold still please." The skin around his eyes is tired, but soft against her fingertips. Threading chakra through his skull is nothing, barely a pinprick of concentration now, but she focuses harder than she needs to if only to block out the intense line of his eyes on hers.

Sasuke stares a lot, these days.

Sakura's noticed.

The war has been over for two months, three days and ten hours, but it's the first time she's felt this particular stare settle on her.

Cataloguing the changes, she thinks distantly. She's seen him do it with the village – the way he mentally re-orientates himself to the new surroundings – on quiet mornings when he walks in the mist. She's noticed the steady resolve to replace the memory of what was, with the image of what is.

He's relearning the village, bit by bit. He's relearning –

Sakura lowers her hands, heartbeat frantic against her ribcage. For an insane moment, she wonders if he can hear it.

"Your eyes are fine," she tells him.

Sakura sees Sasuke wherever she goes now, or so she feels.

It'll happen at the oddest of times, in the most mundane of place – when she's at the grocery store making a quick dash for milk, or at the library researching old methods of indoctrination. Sakura will feel warmth on her skin like sunlight and know she is in the centre of his gaze.

"Stop staring at it."

"What?" Sasuke asks dryly, though he already knows the answer. He does this now, plays dumb to make her elaborate and it's absolutely infuriating being made to state the obvious all the time, especially when that person already knows what the obvious is.

"My seal. Stop staring at my seal!"

"I –"

The rest of the team is training; Sai and Naruto are sparring on the other side of the field and without their presences by her side, all the stupid things she's been bottling up for weeks start to come out.

"You stare at it a lot." Her voice comes out accusingly.

Whatever started in the hospital has only grown worse with time. She feels like she's living under a spotlight, Sasuke's gaze on her wherever she goes, dark and intense and burning.
Maybe I would have liked that once. All I wanted was his acknowledgement back then.

Sasuke is watching her now with that still gaze she's come to know, oh-so-intimately and all Sakura wants is to run. He considers her for a moment longer before glancing away to the slowly setting sun.

"You've changed," he says, a whole world of uncertainty laced between those two, tiny words and Sakura –

Sakura doesn't know what to say. There's a war and numerous battles between them, between the last shuddering moment under the moonlight and who they are now.

"Did you expect," she asks, so quietly possibly only the dead can hear her, "that I wouldn't, Sasuke?"

"That is not what I meant at all."

She blows her fringe out of her eyes, exasperated. "Then tell me what you do mean. I'm so –"


The rest of the sentence, hastily bitten off at the end, comes tumbling from her mouth involuntarily. "I'm so tired of having to guess," Sakura admits, "what you think or feel about anything."

He is such a lonely figure, silhouetted against the bright, fading light. She wants simultaneously to wrap her arms around his ribcage, pull him close and let a little of her warmth bleed through his skin, and to step back from his quiet, his solitude, his gently probing eyes.

Push and pull; the conflict of tides in her veins. Sasuke, her ambivalent moon.

"I valued the teammate I remember," he murmurs slowly, as if he, too, is trying to explain some strange feeling he doesn't entirely understand and it – it softens her towards him, quietens the fear in the back of her throat because Sakura is so used to being the one who watches Sasuke, in being the one who pays attention.

Sakura is used to looking at Sasuke, quietly and without being noticed in return. There is safety, she thinks, in being invisible.

"I valued the… friend I found in her."

She looks up sharply, unable to help herself. Sasuke isn't looking at her, but with the sun setting on his alabaster skin, throwing the sharp edges of his face into profile, she can see the sad, downwards turn of his thin mouth.

It is hard to hold a grudge against that – not that she ever really did. Sakura is not sure she could ever begrudge him anything.

"I'm still your friend. I always have been."

"But I haven't always been yours."

Tears build and swell in her eyes, but she doesn't let them fall. How sad it is, that she has become so accustomed to loving him from a distance.

How sad it is, that the prospect of him erasing that distance unbalances and upsets her. Sakura curls her arms around herself in a protective cage and tries to remember how to breathe.

"I would like to be your friend, Sakura," Sasuke says, taking a step to bridge the space between them. And another.

Sakura watches him watch her, and she doesn't pull away this time.

"I get why you're so scared," Ino says, jabbing her ice cream laden spoon in Sakura's direction. "Honestly, forehead, I do. But you've proven you can't let him go; you might as well let him in."

"Like this," he murmurs in her ear, adjusting her grip on his sword with careful fingers.

Sakura shivers against the warm, hard line of his body against hers and lets her eyes slip shut, just for a moment. She feels his other hand in her unbound hair as, slowly, Sasuke presses a closed-mouth kiss against the base of her throat.

"I missed you."

notes: burps

notes2: not entirely happy with this