Chapter 1: homecoming
The world falls apart in the usual manner—achingly, slowly, by inches.
Despite his best efforts, peace slips through his fingers like so much sand, and Shikamaru is old enough now that he should know better than to be surprised.
And yet he is, when it comes down to the line. When it comes down to the end.
“I’m not my shishō,” Sakura tells him, and downs the rest of her drink, slamming the empty glass rim first onto the table. “I owe Konoha nothing: no legacy and no ties. I won’t come back, Shikamaru.”
Not for him, she means.
He knows that. He’s known it for years and years and years, now.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt.
He’s so tired. Tired and sad and scared. And he knows she’s going to think that he’s chosen to turn what he’s about to tell her into a weapon. (As if he’s ever wanted to hurt her.) But all he has left, all he has to give her is the truth, however much she’s never wanted to believe it.
“Naruto is dead, Sakura.”
The conversations around them must still be happening. The world must still be spinning. But all there is between them is a lifetime of flowers crushed underfoot and wanting enough to swallow oceans and loyalty to bring you to your knees and all the mistakes they’ve inherited, the whole circumference of a world to try to set to rights. But all there is between them is a grief so shocking and deep as to make the air still.
“You need to come home.”
Circles and cycles, and Sakura had told him the day she left him standing in that shitty inn in the middle of nowhere in Iwa somewhere, tears on her face—gods she was never a pretty crier, not like Ino, all swollen eyes and bared teeth and emotions heavy enough to suffocate you—and a single bag at her feet, “I won’t play this game. Not for anything. I’m not their Senju-princess come again. I won’t be their martyred woman. They can’t make me be anyone other than myself, not ever again. I refuse to go back. I will burn the village to the ground before I let them make me into anyone else.”
She doesn’t cry when she picks up the hat and puts it on her head, all of Konoha watching.
“I’ll never forgive you for this,” she told him before she stepped out into their view, stepped out into Destiny.
Now she stands in front of him, eyes tilted up to the sky, away from the stone-hewn figure, her hair still a rich tumble of sea waves at dawn down her back, obscuring the title inscribing her spine.
“You don’t ever have to forgive me,” Shikamaru offers up, a supplicant to the deep-seated rage of crashing tectonic plates. He doesn’t offer up anything more, not “just don’t send me away”, not “don’t let this kill you”, not “I will suffer your hatred for the rest of this short brutal life if it means getting to see your face one last time”, not his heart.
(Oh, it’s much too late for that.)
The world falls apart in the usual manner—achingly, slowly, by inches.
Shikamaru knows only one set of hands he trusts to set that shattered bone for mending.
(Too bad, all the things he’ll sacrifice for peace.
What’s one more blade to his heart? It’s a familiar rusted old thing. Plunging it in to the hilt is almost like coming home again.)
Chapter 2: settlement
Day Two: you wake at dusk
The light is bleeding oranges into purples on her bedroom wall when Sakura finally wakes. She takes long minutes to just luxuriate in finally being back in her own bed again—there are bruises aching down to the bone all across her left side, but she can tell that the raw wounds that were still gaping before she fell face first into sleep have closed up over the course of more than a few much needed REM cycles.
She could easily fall back asleep until morning, but despite the brisk shower she had at jōnin headquarters after debrief, her hair is still lank, the brown dye not yet washed out, and her skin doesn’t quite feel like her own.
That, and her stomach is rumbling enough that Sakura considers the all too real possibility that the sound of it is what finally woke her.
She peels herself out of bed and out of her nightshirt, wincing at the way it sticks to her, tacky with old blood.
She really should have rewrapped her abdomen. She would have scolded anyone else for not taking care. But, well— Sakura doesn't like to think about it, so she doesn’t.
The water warms as she stands under the spray, head down, watching it swirl down the drain carrying the murky brown of hair dye and rusted blood and old dirt with it. The steam fills her up, leaving no room for anything else.
Sakura is happy to be occupied.
She surrenders to the water pressing kisses to her crown and lets herself wash away, down the drain.
Her stomach rumbling its protest eventually draws her back into her body.
Sakura stands under the water for a few moments more, before turning off the tap.
There’s a set of towels folded on the chair next to the shower, and her favourite robe hanging on the hook.
She feels warm seeing them, seeing the care behind them.
Sakura pads barefoot to her small kitchen, relishing the cool floorboards. She’s so very tired of dirt and mud and grime and blood. The crisp smell of lemons and the light fading against the walls is a relief.
Her cotton robe is soft against her skin and her hair has bled most of the dye, leaving it a rusted pink as it dries over one shoulder.
Violets are blooming in a vase on her kitchen table, next to a bowl of fresh fruit, and her basil and rosemary and thyme are flourishing in their places on the window sill.
Sakura trails a finger over a delicate petal and smiles, her lips tilting up in a hesitant motion, as if she’d almost forgotten how.
The icebox is full, and Sakura reaches with greedy hands for the onigiri in pride of place at the front, most of the way through a bite before she’s even shut the door, plate in hand.
She eats with slow, careful bites as she puts the kettle on, stove lighting easily, and waits of the water to boil.
By the time she is full up on food and tea, her eyelids are sinking heavily and she’s swaying slightly under the rising moon.
“Hey,” a kiss whispers across her jaw.
Sakura smiles, and the same mouth kisses that, too.
“Hey,” she answers, and opens her eyes.
She’s slept the day away, again. oranges blooming to purples, carving his face with shadows.
Oh. She’s missed him.
He looks at home in her bed.
“Thank you for the violets,” Sakura says.
Shikamaru smiles. “Thank you for coming home.”
Sakura takes his hands in her own and links their fingers. “Always,” she promises. “I’ll always come back to you.”
Chapter 3: rupture
Day Three: closed doors and empty smiles
Shikamaru watches the line of Sakura’s shoulder as she closes the door to the Hokage’s office behind her softly.
He’s known her more than two decades now, and he knows that the sharp blade of her posture is as dangerous as the sea sucked out of a port.
He tries to catch her eye, but Sakura is all polite blankness, the suggestion of a smile hiding in the corner of her mouth like a scorpion under a rock. She refuses to look at him in any way that matters, in any way that means anything.
Shikamaru can feel fear cold on the back on his neck, and every single battle honed instinct is screaming at him to get them out of the danger zone.
He doesn’t know why Sakura is a danger zone.
She was just meeting with Naruto and some village officials about minor changes to the hospital funding.
Shikamaru knows intimately what moves in Konoha’s shadows—it’s his job.
He doesn’t know what has the spectre of war rising in Sakura’s breathing or where it came from.
His hands are full of paperwork that requires immediate review by the Hokage, but he stops her with the slightest of steps into her path.
Sakura pauses, their shoulders not quite brushing, the heat of her close and heady. Shikamaru can smell the sharp shock of her under the disinfectant. He wants for an aching second to lean forward and press his forehead to her own, just breathe her in, let the disinfectant and the war seep away under the heat of her, until it’s just the two of them breathing in tandem.
“I’ll see you for dinner?” he asks instead.
Sakura leans a fraction closer. “I love you,” she tells him.
It’s like a lightning bolt out of a scorching summer blue sky.
It leaves him stunned and breathless.
They are many things to each other, Shikamaru and Sakura. But they are only shinobi in this building. Never the rest of it. And Sakura tells him, “I love you,” with the sound of hounds baying and crows circling overhead in her voice.
His side is cold and his hands are full, and Sakura is half-way down the stairs, getting ever farther away.
Maybe he should be surprised to find Sakura’s home empty of her when he finally stops by that night, take out from their favourite barbecue place tucked under one arm—Chōji introduced them to it, as he has every restaurant Shikamaru has ever bothered to patronize.
It isn’t obvious, her absence. Not to anyone who hasn’t spent most of the past six years half-living here with her.
Their favourite mugs are still drying next to the sink and the usual tumble of research material, light reading, sketches from Sai, encoded notes, and crossword puzzles is strewn across the low table in front of the couch.
The air still smells like home and the bed is half-made and the closet is mostly organized, with only a pair of socks and a couple of bandage rolls crumpled on the ground in front of the open door.
Shikamaru gently puts the food down on the kitchen table before heading to the sink to down a glass of water.
He’s careful not to break the glass when he puts it down on the counter.
He thinks back to the look on her face when he saw her last: the impeccable control and the barely contained fury.
Shikamaru thinks of the emptiness of her smile and the way her voice didn’t waver when she told him she loved him and how he doesn’t know what has moved, what has shifted.
All he knows is that Sakura is gone, long gone, and he has no idea what to do next.
Chapter 4: ruin
Day Four: ashamed of the thing you become
Sakura has looked into the blue of Naruto’s eyes—bluer than the sky on a bone-white summer day, the sun heavy as a brand on the back of your neck, the air shimmering—and felt all manner of emotions.
He is her teammate, and he has been there for some of the most exhilarating, heart-wrenching, terrifying, joyous moments of Sakura’s sharp, brutal life.
(She doesn’t like to think about all the moments he’s missed, all the moments that she suffered and celebrated alone.)
Sakura has never before looked Naruto in the face and been consumed with so much rage.
It creeps like vines up her throat, flowering in the warm cavern of her mouth, a vicious sharp poisonous thing. She’s choking on it.
It’s in this moment, with rage flowering under her tongue and dread lining her bones, that Sakura hears the silence of the last ties of Team 7 snapping.
It’s just whistling, as whatever bond there might have ever been plummets down down down into the gaping wound of Sakura’s grief, of Sakura’s resentment, of Sakura’s jealousy (thirteen years old and standing at the maw of the Shodaime’s woods and knowing that she will never be enough for Naruto, never enough for Sasuke, never enough to keep them or hold them).
She wonders if it hurts more that Naruto doesn’t even seem to notice, patting her on the shoulder and telling her that she’s doing the right thing, that she’ll be happy, that this is what she wanted, that Shikamaru will understand and everyone knew it this would be the way things ended anyways.
She wants to break his hand.
Maybe it does hurt more, that he doesn’t even seem to notice, but there’s so much noise that it’s all just silence now. She can barely hear him. She can barely hear herself, screaming.
No no no no no.
He can’t ask this of her.
He can’t believe this to be the truth.
How could he?
She shuts the door gently behind her as she leaves, and walks right into Shikamaru.
She can see it on his face that he knows something is wrong. (Can he hear her screaming, she wonders?)
Shikamaru can’t know.
This is about Sakura and Naruto and Team 7. This isn’t for Shikamaru to touch (This isn’t for Shikamaru to be touched by.)
All Team 7 has ever been good for is wreckage.
Sakura won’t let Shikamaru be collateral damage to their actions.
She can’t help herself, though, from leaning closer when he puts her into his space. She can’t help herself but to want to touch him.
“I’ll see you for dinner?” he asks. His eyes are dark and cool and Sakura wants to dive into the deep pools of them and lose herself.
She loves him.
She loves him.
She’s going to lie to him and so she says, “I love you.”
Because whatever might have happened, she’s a member of Team 7, and Sakura leaves wreckage in her wake.
Naruto is Konoha’s beautiful golden boy, sunshine in the shape of a man. They love him, the world does. And Naruto loves them back: selfishly, wish greedy hands, enough to burn it down with the force of his love.
Sakura might have been the least of Team 7, but she’s beloved too. Beloved like a much needed rainfall or nursery logs in the forest or a kiss to a bandaged knee.
“The Council agrees with me that it’s time Sasuke came home, Sakura-chan. It’s time for the Teme’s dream to come true, it’s time for the Village to help him. Don’t worry, we have a replacement for you lined up at the Hospital and you’ll have all the support you need. You’ll be so happy! I know this is what you dreamed of, too.”
Sakura might have been the least of Team 7, but she isn’t that girl anymore. Sakura made peace with that spectre long ago, buried her in a grave and planted flowers at the base.
“I love you,” she tells Shikamaru.
Maybe they sing songs about how Naruto and Sasuke helped save the world.
But it was Sakura who squatted in the mud and kept hearts beating with her bare hands.
Sakura wonders who exactly Naruto sees when he looks right through her.
She loved him, once.
But she loves Shikamaru and Ino and her parents and Emi-san down at the market who sells the best fresh fruit and the group of Academy students who wave at her excitedly every time she visits their class for an introduction to iryōjutsu more.
Sakura could break this village in half fighting the spectre of the girl Naruto believes her still to be.
For once in her life, she chooses something other than her selfishness.
(“I love you,” she tells Shikamaru, and doesn’t trust him enough to mean it when he says it back.)
((As she strolls through Konoha’s main gates, Sakura takes a moment to wonder when she became this woman who didn’t trust in love. She doesn’t dwell on it, and turns her face away from the setting sun.
Sakura buried the girl she was and did not weep for it. Maybe she should have.))
Chapter 5: denouement
Day Five: finger to the wrist
Sakura’s parents have been with the Haruno trade caravan in Yu no Kuni for the last six weeks, Ino isn’t talking to her at the moment after their latest blow out over Sasuke-kun or who was paying for dango or possibly Sakura’s refusal of Ino’s invitation to the next Inoshikachō bash (it all tumbled together into one loud shouting match and Sakura doesn’t really know anymore what they were actually fighting about, she just remembers Ino’s blank-faced fury as she walked away), and the last time one of her teammates touched her was six days ago when Kakashi-sensei adjusted her grip on her practice kodachi.
Which is a long-winded explanation for, when Sakura runs into Shikamaru at the genin mission desk, the both of them dropping off the mission report for their respective team, and Shikamaru’s fingers accidentally brush along Sakura’s wrist as they both place their scrolls on the desk, Sakura bursts into tears.
There are a lot of ninja rushing about the busy room, coming and going from missions, and most of them are politely ignoring Sakura as she stands and cries.
Later, she’s probably going to appreciate the courtesy, but right now that just makes her cry harder.
The previously bored chūnin manning the genin mission desk stares at Shikamaru, who is staring at the ground, and if Sakura didn’t mostly just want to collapse into a puddle of tears or maybe lie on the ground with someone’s comforting weight on top of her, she might hit him for that.
Ino taught Shikamaru better than to ignore a crying girl.
Sakura abruptly realizes that punching Shikamaru will at least be some form of physical contact, and promptly delivers a soft tap to his bicep.
Shikamaru sighs and rubs his arm. And then he tugs Sakura in by her own biceps to collapse against his chest.
He smells like Asuma-sensei’s cigarettes and Ino’s perfume and growing things.
Sakura snuffles messily into his shirt.
Later, she’ll appreciate the courtesy of his silence.
Right now, she just holds on to him with both hands and doesn’t dare let go.
Sakura’s can’t hold lightning chirping in her hand like Sasuke-kun or Kakashi-sensei, but she can jolt a heart to beating all the same.
Shikamaru gasps and his eyes flare open, searching wildly for a long moment before finally focusing on Sakura leaning above him.
Sakura grabs one of his failing hands by the wrist and squeezes gently.
His heartbeat flickers under her thumb.
With her chakra racing through his veins and wrapped around his heart, she can feel it beating like it’s her own pulse hammering in her throat, but there’s something tangible to feeling it under the press of her thumb, too.
“Did it work?” Shikamaru manages to rasp out.
Sakura wants to smack him. Instead she chokes back a sob or a scream and says, “You idiot. What the hell were you thinking? What if it didn’t work?”
“But it did? It killed him?”
Sakura considers her bloody hands and the lump of Kakuzu’s spine dumped on top of his still body.
“You stopped his last heart, yeah. And your own. You idiot, what if I wasn’t here to restart yours?”
Shikamaru twists his hand to wrap his fingers around Sakura’s forearm, her own grip shifting in turn.
He doesn’t have an answer as they stay where they are, pressed wrist to wrist, their pulses beating loudly against the vulnerable skin.
Shikamaru can hear her snoring, but when he is finished puttering around her office, removing glasses and bottles and cleaning up the now sticky desk, he pauses to press two fingers to her upturned wrist, just to check.
Sakura doesn’t move from her sprawl across the desk, half-swallowed by her robe, no instinct for self-preservation kicking her awake.
Shikamaru closes his eyes before turning, and closing the door softly behind him.
Chapter 6: grace
Day Six: the long stretch of history
Sakura’s hair is still as pink as the first day he met her, six years old and nothing but green eyes peeking out from behind Ino’s shoulder, but the skin of her hands is soft now with age, worn enough for the blue of her veins to peer through. Deep furrows line her eyes and mouth as she smiles warmly at Temari: channels carved by a lifetime of grief and mirth.
The diadem of Yin seals crowning her forehead are as purple as ever, and Shikamaru wonders how many more years he will have to live before he doesn’t love her.
As many years as he has white hairs, he supposes.
“Do you want company?” Temari asks her.
Sakura shakes her head with a laugh. “If you can abide the impropriety, I’d like to see how well I remember the way. Though given what I saw on our arrival, things have changed. I promise to be very polite if I’m turned away from anywhere particularly sensitive.”
This is Suna, and despite all of Temari’s work—with her brothers and after them—there is usually a certain amount of ceremony to stand on.
But, also, this is Suna, and they have never forgotten the three miracles Haruno Sakura performed for them.
“You are always welcome in our village, Konoha no Sakura. Wherever your wanderings may take you.” Temari speaks it like a blessing, not permission for another head of state to have free reign of her village.
Sakura bows her head in thanks.
Her spine is as straight as a sword as she leaves the room, etched with her title.
Shikamaru confirms a small detail of guards to follow them, signalling with the captain of the ANBU squad in charge of protection on this formal visit, and follows Sakura out.
He valiantly ignores the face Temari makes at him as he leaves.
(She’s mocked him enough over the decades, he is much practiced at it.)
Shikamaru and the light guard are quiet as Sakura walks through the streets of Suna. Everyone they pass has at least a smile and a wave for the Hokage, and many come up to hand Sakura flowers or to tell her of a family member whose life she saved or simply to wish her well.
The ANBU end up with flower crowns as Sakura weaves her gifts together, and Shikamaru wants to cry a little bit, because he always wants to cry a little bit when he sees something that would have made Ino roar with laughter.
Even if Sakura weren’t exactly who she is (eminently capable of protecting herself), the guard isn’t really necessary. The people of Sunakagure are respectful of her personal space and her time.
They reach the wall as the sun is setting, and make the long climb upwards.
No matter how often Shikamaru has made the trip, he forgets exactly how the breathless it is to look out over the immense expanse of sand as it bleeds to purple under the heavy weight of dusk.
Sakura stands sentinel on the wall, shadows turning her face stern and grave, and Shikamaru signals the guards to retreat before moving to do the same.
“Stay.” Sakura’s voice is soft, little more than an exhale, but it pins Shikamaru to the spot.
They are quiet as the sun sinks down below the horizon and the moon starts to climb.
He shouldn’t, but Shikamaru watches Sakura watching the desert, watches the way the light and shadows shift across her face.
She is as still and impenetrable as the rocks peppering the landscape, unmoved by the shifting sands or time.
Shikamaru longs to touch her and make sure she’s real, make sure she’s breathing, make sure she is still flesh and not simply a sword or a pillar or the sky.
He wonders if her cheek is still as soft as he remembers. He wonders if she could fit, still, against the palm of his hand.
He’s much too old to remember and he can’t ever forget.
“A long time ago,” Sakura says—and Shikamaru doesn’t start at the suddenness of her voice, at the way she tears him so easily to pieces— “Gaara told me that not all things can be forgiven. He meant it as a gift, I think.”
Shikamaru barely dares to breathe.
And then Sakura turns away from the desert to look at him, really look at him, look at him for the first time in decades.
Gods, he’s never had words for that exact shade of green.
“We talked about forgiveness and about culpability. Right here, actually.”
“Sakura,” Shikamaru tries to says, but he can’t get his throat to open.
“Gods,” Sakura laughs and tilts her head back, her hair tumbling loose from the official buns it’s been in all day, “I’m too old to be so foolish, I’ve wasted so much time being foolish.”
She smiles at him then. Smiles like the sky and the moon and the desert blooming below them.
Shikamaru can feel his heart unfurling at that smile.
He could be thirteen again, seventeen again, twenty-four again.
“Could you ever forgive this foolish old woman? I’ve wasted so much time being angry, Shikamaru. I’m so tired of being angry about the past, about what happened and could have happened and never had the chance to happen.”
Sakura restarted his heart with her bare hands, once.
Shikamaru doesn’t remember it hurting quiet this much.
He wants to tell her that she’s never needed his forgiveness, that there’s nothing to forgive.
But he is old now, and he promised long ago that he would never lie to her.
So, instead, he says what has always been true, what has been his only truth for so long.
“I love you,” Shikamaru tells Sakura.
Apparently he is not as old as he thought, not as forgetful.
Her cheek fits perfectly to his palm.
Chapter 7: vertex
Day Seven: spinning dizzy
“I did it!” Sakura cheers, brandishing her child sized fishing rod and the attached rubber duck.
Shikamaru catches a glimpse of the lucky red paint on the underside.
“You did it!”
She’s been at the child’s game for the last fifteen minutes as Shikamaru browsed the market stalls, trying to spot the Akimichi symbols dangling from wind chimes or decorating banners or simply adorning the clothing of the vendor.
(Chōji somehow always manages to get a report of exactly what Shikamaru has eaten at any given festival, and pouts dramatically if he’s partaken in food from a sub-standard vendor. Shikamaru can’t bear the disappointment.)
They’re jōnin, and they could beat any game of skill or trickery that they care to try their hand at, but Sakura only ever bothers with the games of chance.
“I did it! I won!” Sakura exclaims again, pink-cheeked and eye-bright, and throws herself at Shikamaru.
He catches her with one arm under her thighs, her belly pressed against his chest and the food cartons hastily shifted to one hand. Shikamaru spins them gently, letting Sakura’s momentum turn them instead of sending him tumbling backwards under the sudden weight of her.
Sakura laughs, high and light and infectious, and near collapses over him, still holding the small wooden fishing rod and the duck, her hair spilling down around him to create for a breath a whole universe that is just pink and laughter and the cut of her mouth.
Shikamaru lets their spinning slow to a stop, but holds Sakura to him for just a moment longer before letting her slip out of his hold, down his body, to come rest on her feet.
Their foreheads are touching and Sakura’s smile is more than enough to drown out the festival around them.
“Hi,” she whispers.
“Hi,” Shikamaru whispers back.
Sakura pushes up on her toes and presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth, hummingbird quick and just as fleeting.
“I need to go claim my prize,” she says, and dances off, the petals on her yakuta swaying with her.
Much later, as the fireworks burst far above them, Shikamaru lays on a grassy knoll with Sakura tucked under one arm and her giant stuffed rabbit under the other.
The explosions seem to slow with the beat of their hearts and the exhalation of their breaths, until eternities live in the space between the crackle-pop-bangs and the sharp illumination of Sakura’s features by a thousand falling stars.
Sakura turns her eyes away from the sky to look at him.
Shikamaru is going to love this woman for the rest of his life.
Maybe one day he’ll be brave enough to say it out loud.
Maybe one day she’ll be brave enough to believe it.