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The roles we play

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The first time he'd seen her, she was just a girl. Twelve years old and bubbly; a little shy, a little cute. Completely naïve to the ways of the shinobi world. He'd been told she was the brightest in the class, but as he observed her gush and fall over herself swooning at the young Uchiha, Kakashi wondered if Iruka had actually been describing her distinct hair and eye colour combination.

 

She'll need extra watching, he'd thought, slightly irritated with himself. The jinchuuriki and Uchiha had been assigned to him almost immediately after accepting the Hokage's personal request to take on a team that uniquely needed his particular skillset and experience. But it was by his own suggestion that a third member was added to complete the guise of a normal genin team. Uchihas were suspicious by nature and all accounts indicated his new ward was skittish enough to break protocols at the first sign of something suspicious.

 

From a distance, he watched as the trio bickered, swooned, and ignored each other in turns. An hour passed. The jinchuuriki and girl were mostly trying to engage the Uchiha now, the former in a fight and the latter in a poor attempt at flirting, and were receiving little more than a sneer for their efforts.

 

Kakashi sighed and slumped back against a tree. Two things were clear from his observations: they were not going to be friends by choice, and it would not be the girl but the Uchiha that was key to building the team dynamic. If he got the young man to follow his lead, the other two would follow.

 

In retrospect, he mused that he’d at least been right with the first observation.

 

———

 

When his eyes met hers on the training field after months of being away on missions, he knew she’d grown into a full-fledged kunoichi. At 16, Sakura displayed the most exceptional chakra control he'd ever seen and wielded it with monstrous force. She’d beamed with pride as both Kakashi and Naruto stared, dumbfounded and amazed. He was going to compliment her mastery of such a powerful jutsu when it occurred to him that he’d contributed nothing to her current accomplishments, besides silently allowing her to leave their already broken team to train under Tsunade, and the guilt kept his mouth shut.

 

He remembered the disappointment in her eyes when he simply nodded and tousled her hair affectionately. He made a mental note to tell her another time.

 

———

 

The first time he saw her, truly saw her for all she’d become, was on the battlefield of the Fourth Shinobi war. He'd been sent to the frontline as commander of the Third Regiment, prepared to die again to hold their position, and suddenly she was there. Standing beside him, confident and sure in her supporting role behind Naruto and Sasuke in the final fight against a god.

 

Guide and support. Defend and heal. In the grand scheme of Life, these were the roles they’d probably always been meant to play.

 

Kakashi never expected to survive that day, much less take on the title of Hokage. But Obito had told him it was also his part to play, to safeguard the future generation until they were ready, so he didn't refuse.

 

From the moment he regained consciousness and opened his eyes, he knew Kakashi of the Sharingan was no more. He’d said as much as his gaze focused on Sakura, who'd caught him and was now settling him into a sitting position on the ground. It had been a long time since he’d seen anything with such perfect clarity and depth. He’d been looking out on the world with one eye for so long, only using both when in battle, that he’d forgotten how much more of everything there actually was. Absently, he reached out and ran his fingers lightly through her hair. His eyes grew wide with muted awe upon discovering that the vibrant strands were actually a mixture of cherry blossom and pinkish rose. And when his gaze was caught by Sakura’s, he lost himself in the lush shades of greens swimming like light shining through a canopy of leaves.

 

"Beautiful," he murmured softly.

 

"Kakashi-sensei…"

 

Her concerned tone made him blink and refocus on her, seeing her clearly now and noting the slight blush in her cheeks. He let his hand fall back to his side.

 

———

 

When Sakura turned 20 (or was it 21?) she became the most beautiful blushing bride he'd ever seen. She was overflowing with giddy joy, barely able to keep from running the rest of the way up the aisle where her dark groom awaited her. Her childhood dream had finally come true.

 

It was a small and private affair, but the symbolic and political relevance was not lost on anyone. The wedding was as much about anchoring the Uchiha name to Konoha as it was a statement of Sakura's unyielding determination and fierce loyalty to the ones she loved.

 

Kakashi watched as she bowed to duty and to honour; and rose as the new Uchiha matriarch.

 

———

 

Loyal friend. Exceptional healer. Doting mother and faithful wife. Accomplished jounin. If Kakashi had to list the roles Sakura played on a day-to-day basis in the order of importance, this was how he'd sort it. She played each role to perfection and no one was the wiser. Why would they, when Sakura had, by all accounts, achieved everything she'd ever wanted?

 

Kakashi rarely saw Sakura alone, her work with the hospital and childrens' clinic keeping her in demand with all sorts of people. But there were a handful of moments— mostly early mornings before dawn, when sleep eluded him and he took to quiet strolls to the memorial and back —when he'd catch sight of her alone. Leaning over her apartment balcony in a thin morning robe, staring wistfully out over the horizon while hugging herself against the cool morning air, she resembled a lonely heroine from the pages of an Icha Icha novel. Unaware that anyone may be looking, her expression was unguarded, tired, and filled with yearning.

 

Though he and Naruto kept fairly regular correspondence with Sasuke, it was always strictly business. He'd been mildly curious as to what arrangements they'd made to continue their relationship long-distance. Considering the combined skillset of Sasuke and Sakura, it was really only a question of jutsu preference. But seeing her unguarded expression that day, Kakashi realized with dismay that there were no such arrangement.

 

Sasuke had left her with nothing.

 

The experienced and hardened shinobi in Kakashi rationalized that the Uchiha was and always would be a targeted man, so it was safer if familial ties were not widely communicated to the rest of the shinobi world. The romantic in Kakashi, however, deeply objected to the situation. He'd tried on a few occasions to encourage the younger man to communicate something towards Sakura, if only a passing inquiry on her well-being as he reported on the latest acquired intel. But Sasuke never felt compelled to and knew that, because of their proximity to her, Kakashi and Naruto would always obligingly mention her without his asking.

 

He felt guilty that he had nothing to pass on to Sakura after contact with him. It had never felt right. Yet Sakura never seemed too upset by it. Like Sasuke, she seemed content to hear that her spouse was well and didn't pursue further information. Unlike Sasuke, she clearly struggled with the disappointment and with the desire to send personal messages.

 

It was the small details, at first. As weeks turned into months turned into years, the fire and enthusiasm that once burnt strong within Sakura seemed to dim and quiet. Though her smile continued to shine bright, as time passed the light rarely reached her eyes. When once there was bounce to her step, there now seemed to be days when she had to drag her feet along.

 

She would appear on some days looking completely exhausted, mentally and emotionally. On those days it was easy to blame her condition on overwork and the demands of being a single parent. Her friends and colleagues offered help when they could, conscious of the fact that she was the only one from their generation raising a child alone. On  a handful of occasions, even Kakashi had used his title to order her home for mandatory R&R.

 

It probably shouldn't have been such a surprise, then, when the village gossip mill inevitably bit into a juicy rumour of an extramarital Uchiha affair. It had made Kakashi's ears bleed the first time he heard it. Naruto was so angry he loudly threatened violence on further rumour-mongering in the hospital (where, Kakashi had to give him credit, was the likely source of said rumour).

 

The gossiping stopped abruptly after that, but damage to Sakura's reputation had been done. Eyes would steal glances at her wherever she went; most with pity, some with scorn, and a regretful few with unsavoury leers.

 

Kakashi had quietly assigned an ANBU on Sakura to scare off any potential threats. He convinced himself it was so she didn't have to deal with any unpleasant advances that may also, inadvertently, spark the gossip mill again. But if he was honest with himself, it was because the image of her lonely figure on the balcony began to haunt him.

 

———

 

Sakura was there at one of the quarterly meetings held in the Hokage Tower, representing and reporting on the medical division. It was a tedious but necessary affair meant to ensure all the captains and division heads were aware of all the going-ons in the village. As the hour dragged into two, Kakashi half-followed the discussion and let his gaze wander the room. He took in the faces of the best shinobi Konoha had to offer, giving a nod to those who met his passing gaze, until at last it settled on her.

 

Kakashi frowned and tilted his head more clearly towards her. He'd seen her enter with the other medics at the start of the meeting, but he'd been finalizing details with Shikamaru and didn't get to catch her eye before she ducked into a seat in the far end of the room. He'd thought she looked tired again and probably wanted to stay out of sight to close her eyes a bit. But now as he looked at her properly, he saw it was quite a bit more serious than that. Her hair was matted and her eyes bloodshot. She sat hunched and rigid in her seat, both hands clenching large chunks of fabric from her dress in her lap. She was sucking on her bottom lip and concentrating very hard on the papers in front of her. Kakashi's eyes widened in slow comprehension as her eyes glazed and began to water.

 

When the first tear silently fell on a piece of paper, Kakashi pushed abruptly from his seat and stood. All heads turned to him in surprise. All, that is, except one.

 

He cleared his throat. "My, ah… the thing is… I think we can all agree the rest of today’s agenda can be memo’d, right?" Kakashi looked around the room and, to his relief, saw several members lean forward with cautious eagerness and nod. There were also a fare share of sighs and face palming.

 

Shikamaru grumbled something under his breath as he quickly looked over the remaining topics. Sure enough, they were not of any great importance compared to the prospect of getting out a full hour or two early. He stretched his arms up and crossed them behind his head. "Sure, why not?"

 

Kakashi's eyes crinkled in a smile. "Then as Hokage I'm pleased to say: meeting adjourned!"

 

The mood in the room spiked instantly as people got up with a laugh and made their way out. In less than a minute, the room was empty save for two occupants. No one wanted to linger in case the Rokudaime was just joking— it wouldn't have been the first time.

 

Sakura had gotten up with the others but lingered near the door until they were alone. She wiped at her damp cheek with the back of her arm and forced herself to look up as Kakashi walked towards her. She gave him a shaky smile. "Thank you."

 

Slowly, so as not to startle her, he reached out and touched her arm lightly. "What's going on?"

 

She shook her head and looked away. "Nothing."

 

Nothing to bother you with. Nothing not everyone already knows and suspects.

 

"Sakura…" he sighed and ran a hand roughly through his hair. "You don't break into tears in a room full of shinobi elites over nothing."

 

Her head bowed in embarrassment and her entire being seemed to shrink in on itself. "I know," she murmured. "I'm sorry."

 

Her reaction was too much like a wounded animal for Kakashi to let drop. With some effort and a lot of awkwardness, he closed the gap between them and pulled her into an embrace. She offered surprisingly little resistance, whimpering quietly as she was crushed against his vest. "It's Sasuke," Kakashi whispered into her hair, "isn't it?"

 

Her whole body tensed and trembled in confirmation. She was practically crumbling in his arms. Instinctively, Kakashi tightened the embrace.

 

"I almost wish it was another woman," she confessed, her voice rasped and bitter. "Then I'd have someone to hate." Besides myself.

 

Kakashi felt her fingers curl into his sleeves, locking herself in his embrace. Instinct told him to stay silent and still.

 

"I would've followed him anywhere," she cried softly.

 

He ignored his instinct and tightened the embrace. "I know."

 

Kakashi didn't realise just how tight he'd been holding her until she pushed away from him using some force. Green eyes bright with unshed tears looked up at him in question.

 

"Why?" Why didn't he let me?

 

The onslaught of raw emotion directed his way is overwhelming and a bit frightening. Kakashi swallowed hard. A moment passed. His visible features softened and, before he could really think about what an appropriate gesture would be, cupped  the side of her face lightly with his left hand. Her eyes fluttered closed as she reflexively leaned into his touch.

 

Because he loves you, Kakashi thought would be the kind and expected response.

 

Because yours is a light that should not be tainted by the darkness he dwells in, was an elaborated but still favourable response.

 

Because he's a damn fool, was on the tip of Kakashi's tongue.

 

When her eyes opened and implored him once more, his mind went momentarily blank and he had to swallow back his discomfort again.

 

"I don't know." He said at length, and pulled her back into his embrace. He felt the moment her will broke and she began to cry. Inwardly, he cringed at what had clearly been a lacking response.

 

The sun set. Minutes turned into an hour, turned into two. He continued to hold her as the room darkened around them.

 

Her trembling stopped after the first hour. Muffled sobs became quiet sniffles against his damp and rumpled vest after the second. Sakura eventually became aware of the peaceful stillness in the room and, oddly enough, in the body she was snugly wrapped against. She shifted in the embrace to look up at him and found his eyes closed.

 

"Kakashi-sensei?"

 

Half-lidded grey eyes gazed down at her sleepily. "Hmn?" It had been a while since she last used that honorific with his name.

 

Had he been napping? Sakura chuckled softly and wiped at her damp cheek. "Your vest is ruined."

 

"Ah," he shrugged and tried not to yawn. "I guess it is."

 

She pulled away and stepped back somewhat reluctantly. Kakashi slouched back on the table end and unsnapped the buckles on either side of his vest. As he pulled the ruined fabric over his head, some of his shirt went with it, revealing most of his lower abdomen and stomach. The combined light of the moon and city lamps streaming into the room outlined in vivid detail toned muscles and a deep navel set in a chiselled stomach. Sakura felt blood rush to her cheeks and ears as she belatedly averted her eyes.

 

Of course he would be fit. Really fit. Kakashi's trademark poor posture, like the mask he wore as a second skin, kept secret a devastatingly beautiful figure from the world.

 

Sakura reminded herself that the man before her was an elite shinobi. The role of Hokage, with all the danger and responsibility it entailed, would have only sharpened rather than softened him over the years. She'd leaned into his strong yet comforting build for the better part of the last two hours and never even realised…

 

She clasped her hands in front of her, suddenly feeling awkward and nervous.

 

Kakashi threw the vest behind him, smoothed down his shirt, and shucked his hands into his pants pockets. An odd tension now filled the room and he wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

 

"I should go," Sakura said. She didn't wait for a response as she turned on her heel to make for the door.

 

"Sakura.”

 

She froze, fingers hovering just over the doorknob.  Her body tensed with dread. Even after having a good cry in his arms, she wasn't ready to talk about her personal woes to anyone. Not yet. Sakura didn't trust herself to speak. "Hm?"

 

Kakashi chuckled softly and gestured to the wall beside her. "Could you turn on the lights?"

 

Her body visibly relaxed and she flipped the switch on the wall. He groaned and blinked at the sudden brightness that flooded the room.

 

"Thank you,” she said quietly, and turned just enough for him to glimpse a profile of her face and a small smile. Then she disappeared.

 

When he could no longer feel her presence in the building, Kakashi rubbed his temple and sighed. Talking would’ve probably done her some good. But when she’d tensed so defensively at the sound of her name, he'd chickened out.

 

The heartache of being let down by a loved one was something he understood well. His father had left him in worse circumstances, but he recognized the same anger and self-doubt that once consumed him now affecting Sakura. The loneliness, too, was an old friend he knew well.

 

Maybe it was the way she'd chosen to endear him with his old title, but Kakashi suddenly felt obligated to help her in some way. There had always been some residual guilt over how little he'd actually put into the role as her sensei. Trying to keep the Uchiha and jinchuuriki out of trouble had taken up the majority of his attention during their brief time as Team 7. It was mostly dumb luck and only a little bit of good timing, as far as Kakashi was concerned, that he managed to keep her alive all this time. And while not dying was the bare minimum needed to fulfil the role of a team captain, it said nothing about his role as her sensei. He'd never earned the honorific; much less her continued use of it after all these years.

 

He lingered a few moments longer in the off chance she'd have second thoughts and come back, but didn't hold his breath. Then, when he was sure he was all alone in the tower, he went into his office and slipped out the window. Shadowy blurs of the Rokudaime's private ANBU entourage followed him the rest of the way home.

 

———

Chapter Text

There was something magical about twilight, with street lamps blinking on as you walked passed and the darkening sky reflecting soft hues of violet and pink from a fading daylight. Sakura liked how quiet the streets were at this time and how cool the evening air felt on her skin. The village was transitioning from day into night, offering promises of warm dinners with loved ones, bold nightly adventures, and secrets made behind the curtain of dark.

 

She stopped at the intersection that lead to her apartment and looked back at the Hokage tower one last time. The lights in the office room were now dark; the Rokudaime finally done for  the evening. Regret sank a little in her gut.

 

Perhaps she should have said a little more to Kakashi. If he'd insisted, she likely would have. But he didn't because she knew it wasn't in his nature to pry. The truth was Kakashi respected the privacy of others to the point that, for most of her young and impressionable life, Sakura had actually believed he didn't care.

 

But he did. He always cared. Indifference was just the mask he wore. Sakura had observed him enough over the years to now recognize and appreciate his subtle— and recently, not-so-subtle —tells.

 

Like the way he'd push his hand nervously through his shock of silver-white hair when anything remotely personal was brought up.

 

Or the way his expression would soften to something apologetic long before he could muster the courage to tell her that Sasuke had briefly stopped by. It often gave her enough time to reign in the crushing disappointment  and give a muted, if not fairly cool reaction when he did tell her.

 

Then there was the recent way he'd saved her from embarrassing herself in front of all their peers, then held her as she fell apart and slowly pulled herself back together. She couldn't even begin to think about how to thank him.

 

Sakura sighed and started towards her apartment. In the end, it was probably for the best that he didn't get her to talk. She'd already taken a lot more of their time than expected and Sarada would be looking for her soon, if not already. And if she had started talking, Sakura wasn't sure she'd have been able to stop. There was just so much wanting to flow out. She'd probably end up ruining his shirt, too.

 

Her lips quirked up  at the thought and she briefly indulged in the highly distracting mental image of a topless Kakashi, updated with the details she'd glimpsed earlier. It's been a while, she mused lightly, since the Rokudaime had a physical check-up.

 

———

 

"Tadaima!" Sakura announced as she slipped out of her sandals and entered the apartment.

 

"Okaeri," Ino replied, emerging from the bath with a clean and giggling toddler. Seeing her mother, Sarada reached out with her little arms and squealed. "This cutie is ready for bed," Ino laughed as she handed the toddler over.

 

"Hello, my little fan!" Sakura greeted and gave her daughter a warm squeeze. "What story shall we read tonight?" She smiled at Ino and mouthed a 'thank you' before taking the little bundle to bed.

 

An hour later, Sakura re-emerged from the bedroom. She was surprised to find her friend leaning over the kitchen counter, eating some leftover ramen, and casually reading a paperback novel. Her eyes fell on the novel cover and she suddenly wanted to scream. It couldn't… "Is that yours?"

 

The blonde laughed, heartily enjoying Sakura's surprise. "No, of course not! This is yours, you naughty minx." She flaunted the copy of Icha Icha Innocence in her face.

 

Sakura bit back a groan. "How did you find it?"

 

"Under the bed is hardly hiding it," Ino scoffed. "You should thank me. I saved this one from Sarada's destructive little hands."

 

Sakura took a seat across from her friend and half-heartedly tried to take the book back.  Ino easily avoided the attempt and resumed her reading. Green eyes shot her a wary look. "Well?"

 

"It doesn't seem as exciting as the first one." Ino commented casually as she flipped to the next page. "More sappy."

 

"You mean romantic." Sakura corrected. The reason she'd gotten a copy was because it was the only one Jiraiya had described as being about true love.

 

"Whatever." Ino shrugged. "Can I read it when I'm here?"

 

"You can borrow it if you want."

 

"Nah. Don't want Sai thinking I'm dropping him these kind of hints yet, if you know what I mean." The blonde swatted Sakura playfully on the arm and winked. "We're not done with Paradise yet."

 

Sakura rolled her eyes. "Don't you have your own little one to go home to?"

 

"You know Sai takes care of the evenings. " Ino said and placed the book down on the counter. She studied the woman across from her for a moment. "You okay? He said the meeting ended early."

 

Sakura rested an elbow on the counter and propped her head up with her open hand. "Better than expected," she answered honestly.

 

Pale eyes narrowed. Sakura averted her gaze but Ino could see her eyes were slightly puffed from having cried recently. Her cheeks were flushed and her expression was calm but tired. No, not tired… almost resigned. And for lack of a better description, lighter than she'd been a few hours ago in the clinic.

 

A good, ugly cry in the last few hours had clearly helped unwind Sakura. Ino sighed in relief; someone had done the hard part for her.

 

Which meant she could move on to the fun part.

 

"Well," Ino grinned and pulled two bottles of wine from behind the counter. "I think that's enough reason to celebrate!"

 

Sakura laughed warmly but shook her head. "It's really tempting but… can it wait till tomorrow? I'm feeling spent."

 

Ino's smile faded with disappointment but she reluctantly nodded in understanding. "Sure, Forehead. But you better not forget to pack these!" 

 

"I won't," Sakura promised. She stood up with Ino and hugged her goodbye.

 

"See you tomorrow!"

 

A soft click of the apartment door closing, and Sakura was finally alone for the evening. She sank into the living room sofa, let her head fall back on some cushions, and pressed both her palms to her forehead. The pressure gave her some semblance of control as the feelings and memories she'd tried to repress all day flooded out again.

 

———

 

Last night

 

A dark figure slipped out of the Hokage's office and was making quick progress towards the village gates. Sakura jumped from the shadows she'd been concealing herself in for the past hour and gave chase. If Naruto hadn't given her the head's up that afternoon, she would've missed him completely. Again.

 

"Sasuke!"

 

The dark figure stopped on a rooftop and turned slowly to watch her approach. Sakura alighted on the same rooftop a few seconds later and took two tentative steps forward. Her pulse quickened but not from adrenaline. In the moonlight, his face was a perfect porcelain mask, completely devoid of emotion. Handsome as ever, but so very very cold.

 

She smiled weakly. "Not even a hello?"

 

His face remained passively blank. "I'm sorry, Sakura."

 

"For what?" she asked softly, distracted by her heart banging against her chest.

 

He turned away from her. "I'm going."

 

"No!"

 

She ran forward then, one arm stretched out towards him, but caught herself just inches from touching his cloak when he swivelled back on his heal to face her. Sakura's gaze instantly fell downwards as she held the offending arm close to her chest. "I… I know you don't have to. At least, not right away." She took a deep breath and bravely raised her eyes up to his. "Don't you want to see her?"

 

Something clouded his dark eyes briefly. "I saw her," he stated, his head tilting slightly in thought. "She is… precocious."

 

"Oh." Her raging heart twisted knowingly, painfully at the unspoken implication. She bit her bottom lip and asked anyway. "And me?"

 

The weighted silence that followed spoke volumes.

 

She wanted to crawl under a rock and die of humiliation.

 

She wanted to scream and punch the hell out of his infuriatingly blank face.

 

She wanted to grab him and beg and stubbornly refuse to let go.

 

"I miss you," she whispered. Sakura held both hands close to her chest, feeling extremely vulnerable and hating it. She didn't dare meet his gaze as she mustered one final gambit. "Come for dinner?"

 

A moment passed. For a heartbeat, she dared to believe he was considering it. Green eyes filled with hope when he closed the distance between them and raised his hand to cup her face. His thumb lightly caressed her cheek and he gazed down at her with a look of such startling warmth and affection that her breath caught in her throat. A small smile teased the corner of his lips.

 

This. This was the man she loved.

 

Dark eyes fell on her parted lips and his head bent down slowly to hers. Sakura closed her eyes in anticipation and leaned forward— only to be poked abruptly in the forehead.

 

Her eyes shot open in surprise as she felt his hand run down the length of her arm and linger near hers. Fingers touched but did not intertwine.

 

Sasuke wore an impish grin on his face as he stepped back. "Maybe next time."

 

In that instant, she knew.

 

He was never going to stay with her. The mission would always come first. He had vowed to be the Hokage of the shadows and he intended to keep the role until the day he died.

 

There was nothing particularly different about his chosen gesture of affection that she hadn’t felt countless times before. What struck Sakura was that it had been his only gesture of affection for some time. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt his arm around her or his lips pressed on hers.

 

In the same instant, Sasuke knew that she knew. Her smile was half-hearted and the disappointment too real. There'd been a discrepancy in how they saw their relationship for some time now. Though he'd come to care very deeply for her, he no longer shared her desire for physical expressions of affection. At first he'd been curious, as any young man in the beginning of a relationship would be. And he was certainly not blind. Being together made Sakura happy, and he saw value in allowing it to play out to its natural outcome— namely, the birth of an Uchiha heir. What baffled him was Sakura's continued pursuit for intimacy and physical displays of affection even after their daughter was born. Weren't they unnecessary now that they were permanently bound together as family? Husband and wife? The fact that he found himself ill-suited, in the first few weeks of Sarada's birth, for domestic living further necessitated a distance be put between them. Sakura was patient and understanding at first, but he was foolish to think she’d be content with a long-distance arrangement.

 

He paused for a long moment, a frown etched on his brow, unsure how to proceed.

 

"This should have been enough."

 

"What?" She heard a voice say that sounded a lot like hers, but she couldn’t be sure.  Her mind was grasping at straws. "What’s enough?"

 

"Everything." Marriage. Family. Confidence in his affections only for her. It was everything she'd wanted and he could give.

 

Sakura closed her eyes and breathed. "And if it isn’t?"

 

"Then the problem isn’t with me." He replied coolly, and Sakura could’ve sworn there was an edge in the way he said me. His gaze bore into her, making her shiver. "Neither is the answer." The realization that he may be inadequate left a sour taste in his mouth.

 

Silent tears glinted on Sakura's cheek. She couldn't move and her jaw locked shut, unable to speak. She could only stare as Sasuke lifted his hand slowly towards hers, second-guessed himself mid-way, and let it fall back to his side.

 

Offering physical comfort, no matter how small a gesture, would only confuse them both in the end.

 

"I'm sorry," he apologized for the second time that evening and disappeared.

 

———

 

Sakura stared long and hard at her reflection in the mirror. Dark shadows under heavy eyelids and a somewhat pale complexion stared back at her. Funny, she thought without humour, heartbreak didn’t look so terrible this time around. She splashed some water on her face and ran wet hands through her hair.

 

She felt tired and numb after another restless night. A dull ache weighed heavy in her gut. She’d confronted Sasuke that night hoping he'd dispel some of her anxiety and doubt, but in typical Sasuke-fashion he only confirmed what she— if she was honest —had been in denial of for some time.

 

They were not in the same relationship. While love did bind them together, the type of love she craved and the type of love he could give were different things. She’d spent many waking hours wondering if it was selfish of her to want an intimacy she knew Sasuke was uncomfortable (and probably, to some extent, even incapable of) giving. 

 

She had always known 'ordinary' and Sasuke were a contradiction. As a child, she'd naïvely believed the unordinary meant something wonderful. But as she’d watched her friends fall in love and build families in the 'ordinary' way, she couldn’t help wonder— why weren't they able to have even a little bit of the same? Sure his missions were important to maintaining the peace and stability of their world, but she’d travelled with him for a year and knew that 90% of the time was reconnaissance and waiting.  Naruto’s training was, by far, more demanding on a daily basis and yet the blonde was able to maintain both a family and work life. Secretly, she was envious of the fact that Naruto and Hinata still made time to go on the occasional date, despite both being very busy and having a small child of their own.

 

What happened between her and Sasuke wasn't that they grew apart, she realised, but that they grew up. While Sakura the child had been filled with hopes and dreams, Sakura the woman was disillusioned by the so-called 'happily ever after' and more firmly grounded with a day-to-day reality.

 

As she dragged herself into the kitchen and forced herself to start breakfast, resignation settled inside her as the final, inevitable conclusion became clear.

 

Sakura was lonely.

 

She had a diagnosis, but Sasuke was not going to be the cure. Her heart clenched and eyes stung; it hurt to love someone who didn't love you back in the same way.

 

As if on cue, she heard rustling and a small cry in the bedroom. Well, there was at least one Uchiha who reciprocated her love unconditionally. Sakura wiped at an unshed tear at the corner of her eye and took a deep, calming breath.  "Good morning, my little fan!" she called out, the smile she put on warm and genuine as she walked into the bedroom.

 

———

 

The apartment doors opened and a familiar head of pink hair popped out into the street. In one arm she held a bubbly little toddler and with the other she slung a hefty-looking duffel bag over her shoulder. Kakashi pushed off from the building wall he'd been leaning against for the past few minutes and crossed the street.

 

"Not running away, are we?" He asked cheerily as he fell in step beside Sakura. His eyes crinkled in a smile as he wiggled a finger at Sarada in greeting. Little hands snatched his index and she gurgled happily as she tried to pull his finger into her mouth.

 

Sakura side-stepped in surprise, but recovered quickly and smiled. “Just heading to the park, actually.” A thought occurred to her and her brow knitted in a frown. “Why would you think…?”

 

Kakashi slowed his pace and she slowed with him, turning for his response. He raised his brows innocently and nodded at the large bag over her shoulder.

 

“Oh,” she couldn’t help the slight flush of her cheeks as she chuckled. “This is, um, just baby and picnic stuff.”

 

“Oh?” The Rokudaime echoed with some amusement. He took an interested step forward. “A picnic?”

 

An idea then popped into Sakura’s head. “Would you like to join us?” It could be a way for her to thank him for the other night.

 

Kakashi folded his arms across his chest and tapped his chin thoughtfully with one finger. He’d only wanted to check that she was okay this morning. The prospect of spending the rest of the day engaging in social activities likely involving children and small talk was, he decided, more effort than he was willing to put in. “Thanks, but I  think I’ll pa—”

 

“I have dango,” she blurted, knowing full well her former sensei’s sweet tooth. “Two boxes full.” She could’ve sworn his shock of silver-white hair raised even higher as he straightened with renewed interest.

 

“Well, I suppose I could clear my schedule…”

 

“It’s Saturday.” Sakura remarked flatly and tried not to roll her eyes. She hefted the bag over her shoulder for better support. Sarada, who’d been quietly suckling on her fingers and watching the man before them, was now bored and tried to squirm out of her mother’s arm.

 

“Here,” Kakashi offered both his free hands towards Sakura and nodded at the bag. She handed it to him without any qualms and used her free hand to better hold the toddler in her arms.

 

“Thanks,” she huffed and turned to resume walking in the direction of the park. Kakashi once again fell in step beside her, the duffel bag lazily thrown over one shoulder. She stole a brief glance at his profile and grinned to herself.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing,” she said, her tone light and amused. “Just thinking what a nice surprise this is.”

 

“Ah.”

 

She stole another bemused look his way and caught him watching her from the corner of his eye. Her grin widened. "We haven’t spent time together in a while."

 

"You’ve been busy," Kakashi stated obviously.

 

"And you’re Hokage!" she added with a short laugh. "Like the pot calling the kettle black."

 

"Sakura…" he stopped and a frown creased his brow. She would even dare to say he looked a little hurt. "I would always make time for you. You only need to ask."

 

The sincerity startled her. "Really?"

 

Kakashi nodded solemnly and placed his free hand flat on his chest. "Of course. You’re my favourite student."

 

He managed to keep a straight face for a full moment before his eyes squinted upwards in a knowing smile, and  Sakura burst into laughter. They continued forward.

 

"Thank you," she smiled as she nuzzled the toddler in her arms. Kakashi looked at her, unsure if she’d meant the words for him. Green eyes met his with a smile and there was a light to them he hadn’t seen in a long time. "You’ve made my day so much better."

 

Seeing her face brighten like that would be worth the effort, he told himself.

 

"You’re welcome," he replied warmly.

 

———

Chapter Text

"This place is amazing!" Ino hissed under her breath, barely able to hold back a squeal. "Did you know?"

 

Sakura shook her head, her eyes roaming the perfectly landscaped garden with equal amazement. "No."

 

The private grounds was in a secluded part of the village and large enough to accommodate what was once three tiers of a rice paddy field. In the centre of each tier were ponds connected by small cascading waterfalls. The flowing water effectively separated two halves of the garden: the left was open lawn with well-placed and sculpted bushes and trees. Gravel and stone tiles marked a gently sloping path up this side of the water. It was shaded with a line of cherry blossom trees blooming with white flowers.  The right side was arguably smaller, wilder but lusher; every inch packed with foliage. Sakura couldn't see further than a metre through the thick greenery and could only guess the depth based on where she thought the walls would be.

 

The open-yet-concealed effect was, Sakura mused, an interesting reflection of the man the garden belonged to.

 

"I wish we'd had our wedding here!" Ino exclaimed as she started up the path with a small toddler in her arms.

 

"We would've needed to be invited first," Sai pointed out as he hefted two large bags over each shoulder and followed. Sakura wandered towards the first pond and kneeled by the water to show Sarada the koi slowly but curiously swimming over to inspect them for food.

 

They had come on Kakashi's suggestion after finding the park already packed with people. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the whole village had come out to see them. Not one to mingle voluntarily on his off day, the Rokudaime casually mentioned he knew a place that came with 'the perks of being Hokage'. He never said the land was his, but Sakura recognized the diamond-shaped symbol carved into the front gates as that of the Hatake clan. If not for that one boring summer tasked with sorting and organizing the registered clan symbols in the village, she might have also mistook the deceivingly simple, criss-crossed design as decorative windows.

 

Her knowledge would be a secret for now.

 

On the edge of the largest and furthest pond from the gate sat a building that was once a modest-sized farm home. It had been stripped of personal belongings a long time ago and recently renovated into guest accommodations for visiting dignitaries. Much of the Hokage residence and surrounding area were still under construction when Kakashi 'remembered' a free location that could quickly and fairly easily be upgraded for official purposes.

 

In truth, he'd been trying to forget this last ancestral Hatake plot existed. It was either fate or dumb luck that it was in one of the few parts of the village that wasn't damaged by the invasion or the war that followed.

 

Perching himself on the edge of the low grey rooftop, Kakashi surveyed the work done on the grounds.

 

"Looks pretty good, doesn't it?" a dark-haired man said as he appeared beside him and sat down. "Maybe that's all this place really needed."

 

Silver-white brows rose curiously. "What?"

 

He could practically feel the grin beaming on his companion's face. "A little love. Laughter." The delighted screams of two toddlers pierced the air around them. "Life."

 

Kakashi let out a deep sigh and scratched his temple.

 

His companion lounged back and gestured towards the group settling in the shade of one of the larger trees in the garden. "So that's the next generation, huh?"

 

He watched Sai and Ino unpack their picnic items as Sakura chased around the two toddlers.  Kakashi's companion turned, revealing the tell-tale scars of their childhood trauma, and smiled warmly. "Looks like the future is in good hands."

 

"Obito," he murmured, feeling a twinge of old heartache. "I'll keep my promise as long as I'm able."

 

"Because your record for keeping promises is shit, I know." His old friend snorted. "But the way I see it —" He pointed at the laughing, pink-haired woman just as she looked up and locked eyes with Kakashi. She gave him a bright smile and waved.

 

"Your current record is looking very alive and well."

 

He gave a half-hearted wave back in acknowledgement. "Her success is completely her own doing. She's saved me in battle as much as I've saved her."

 

"And out of battle?"

 

Kakashi frowned. "I don't understand."

 

Obito huffed a short laugh and shrugged. "Sure you do. You wouldn't be here if you didn't."

 

With Kakashi staring at him, silent but cross, Obito rolled his eyes. "Maybe she doesn't need you as a sensei," he hinted cryptically. "But she does need you."

 

"…"

 

"And you need her," he sighed, his expression suddenly sombre. "It's not healthy to prefer the company of ghosts."

 

Kakashi lay back, closed his eyes, and lifted an arm over them. He said nothing. A light breeze carried the sound of laughter, light conversation, and the gentle cascade of water. The sun was warm against his black uniform and he hadn't realized he was being lulled into sleep until a real presence brought his senses back to awareness.

 

"You should join us in the shade before you get sunburned."

 

He lifted his arm just enough to peak out with one half-opened eye. A hazy blur of pink came slowly into view. "Hmn?"

 

"Would anyone even notice if you got tan lines from your mask?"

 

Kakashi pushed himself up to a sitting position and shook his head drowsily.

 

"And you won't get any dango sitting here by yourself."

 

The disappointed puppy eyes he shot her almost made her feel guilty for saying that, but only almost. Sakura crossed her arms. "Tch. You forget I have a toddler. That technique isn't effective anymore."

 

"Was worth a try," he mumbled and ran his hands roughly through his hair a few times. Somehow, to Sakura's dismay, he managed to make himself look even more dishevelled.

 

She let out a sigh, plopped down beside him, and folded her knees to her chin. Her cheeks flushed as she looked down and, for a second, Kakashi saw in her pose another young woman from his past.

 

"Thank you, again, for the other day." She casually pushed a stray pebble off the rooftop with her toes. "It means a lot to me, knowing you…" still care.  She hesitated. "…still watch over us."

 

"It's what I'm here for."

 

He raised a hand to pat her head affectionately, like he used to do when she was younger and needed reassurance, but paused when Obito's words echoed in his mind. She doesn't need a sensei. Adjusting his angle, Kakashi instead let his hand fall on her shoulder and let it linger there long enough to give a light but comforting squeeze before falling away. Wide, green eyes turned to him with surprise and wonder.

 

His eyes crinkled up in a smile and a light blush of his own appeared from the edge of his mask. "I meant what I said before. I'm always available if you need me."

 

Sakura rested her head on her knees and regarded him for a long moment. His gaze remained forward, as if lost in some thought or memory, but he bowed his head slightly to indicate he was still very much aware of her.

 

A gentle breeze lifted pink locks and lightly caressed Kakashi's arm. It whispered of a potential new dynamic between them implied in his offer. He nodded in silent acknowledgement. Tentatively, Sakura scooted over and nudged his shoulder with hers. He gave her a wary look but did not pull away.

 

"Just remember it goes both ways," she said softly, leaning close to his ear. "You're welcome to drop by any time."

 

Kakashi perked up as an opportunity presented itself. "How about dinner tonight?"

 

Sakura couldn't hide the surprise on her face and they both looked away, momentarily,  in embarrassment. He hadn't realized how it would sound until the words had left his lips. He cleared his throat. "I, uh, I mean—"

 

"Okay."

 

She raised her chin and met his puzzled gaze with a warm smile. "Okay," Sakura repeated, confidently this time. "It's been a while since I got to cook a meal for someone. Do you like fried fish?"

 

His stomach growled in response. "I do." His voice was so thick with want that Sakura shifted a little in discomfort. He couldn't help it; it had been a long time since he'd last had a home-cooked meal. Long days in the office meant he usually had a ready-made meal alone before collapsing on the bed.

 

And you need her, Obito's other parting words rang in his ears.

 

"Then it's settled. How about 18:00?" She stood up and extended her hand out to him.

 

He looked at it for a moment before taking it and letting her pull him up to his feet. "Ah."

 

"Now, let's see if there's still some dango for you."

 

———

 

The first time he came for dinner, he brought a bottle of wine and was thirty-minutes early. Sakura was completely caught by surprise, with nothing prepared in the kitchen and the apartment in chaos. She had adjusted the time she gave him to compensate for his usual one to two-hour tardiness. Kakashi had been tempted to just turn and leave, but seeing the terror in her eyes be replaced with fear and disappointment that he'd leave rooted him to the spot. He offered to do the cooking if she showed him where things were in the kitchen.

 

While he prepared the food, Sakura took care of Sarada and put her to bed. She closed the door to the bedroom just as Kakashi was arranging two plates of something wonderful-smelling. She'd never liked his habit of downing large portions of food in one gulp around company, so she put a large centrepiece of brightly-coloured glass flowers on the dining table to effectively obscure everything but his eyes and top of his head from her view. "So we can properly enjoy our meal," she'd explained when he gave her a bemused look.

 

It was the most delicious simmered fish she'd ever eaten.

 

"This tastes amazing!" She exclaimed. "Why don't I remember you being able to cook?"

 

Grey eyes peeked over the centrepiece bright with laughter. "The need never came up." Truth be told, cooking for someone besides himself did feel rather good. "I'm glad you like it."

 

"I love it," she cried before forking a generous portion into her mouth and humming happily. After helping herself to a few more delicious mouthfuls, Sakura raised the fork in her hand and waggled it at her former mentor. "I might've liked you back then if I knew you could cook like this."

 

Silver-white brows raised in mock-surprise. "You didn't like me?"

 

"Liked you better," she amended and didn't notice his eyes linger and narrow on the  wry curve forming on her lips. "I may have even crushed on you a little."

 

"Is that so?"

 

Sakura nodded matter-of-factly as she reached for her glass of wine. "It's not like I had a lot of options. The guys I met back then either want to kill me, were perverts, or completely ignored me." At the last, she flustered a little.

 

Kakashi sat back in his chair and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "What about Rock Lee?"

 

She nearly choked on her wine laughing. "Maybe if I had a thing for green leotards! But I don't."

 

"I hear they're quite comfortable," he shrugged, but secretly he was grinning too. Dinner talk that didn't involve politics or business was refreshing.

 

"They also leave little to the imagination," Sakura added with a shudder. She shot a look across the table and the wry smile returned to her lips. "SO unlike your mask," she teased.

 

He probably should've seen that one coming.  "What is the going theory these days? Is your bet still on fish lips? Buck teeth?"

 

Sakura stuffed the last morsels of food into her mouth and rolled her eyes. She made a circular gesture with her hand as she chewed and eventually swallowed. "Not for years," she said at last and chuckled. "I learnt quite a bit more about anatomy since then."

 

"Oh?"

 

"Mm-hmm."

 

Green eyes twinkled at his grey and she gave him a wide grin. He raised a brow in question, to which she batted her lashes and smiled evasively. "Dessert?"

 

Half an hour later found them relocated on opposite ends of the couch and the last of the wine swirling in Sakura's glass. Her feet were folded up on the cushions and she was examining her guest through the liquid as if it was a magnifying glass. Kakashi was lazily reclined with his head propped up with one arm on the cushions. He regarded her with a relaxed but sombre look.

 

"Why so serious?"

 

"You should probably talk to me now."

 

Oh. She lowered her glass and her gaze. "There's really nothing to talk about."

 

Kakashi sighed, "Sakura."

 

Her fingers tapped the wine glass a few times before she raised her eyes level with his. "Everything is how it's always been." She tried to smile but it faltered and she averted her eyes again. "That's the problem."

 

"Have you talked to anyone else?" he asked gently.

 

She shook her head and wiped at phantom tears in her eye. Sakura tried to focus on the night sky outside her balcony. "I— I thought things would change. Become a bit normal…" like everyone else. "But it turns out we wanted different things."

 

A long but not entirely tense, nor uncomfortable, moment passed between them. If anything, Sakura seemed resigned rather than troubled. After a while, Kakashi pulled himself forward, clasped his hands together and rested his elbows on his knees. "What can I do?"

 

Order Sasuke to come home. Sakura bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and inhaled deeply. "This. Just being here is good."

 

Not being alone is good.

 

There was just something comforting about Kakashi's presence. It was probably their long familiarity with each other combined with his generally laid-back personality. But lately there'd been something more and she couldn't quite put her finger on it yet.

 

"Do you want me to come again?"

 

This time, when she managed to look at him, her smile did not waver. "I'd like that."

 

———

 

He came again a few nights later. Sakura was careful not to repeat her mistake and made sure food was at least partly ready by the time he arrived.

 

Kakashi looked beyond tired; he'd spent most of the day in long and difficult mission planning sessions. He'd discarded the hitae-ate, vest, and gloves before coming over. Unable to be of use in the kitchen, he offered instead to entertain Sarada while she finished cooking. This mostly involved summoning one of his ninken to play with the toddler as he caught a quick nap. But to Sakura's amusement, it also involved her little girl tugging happily at fistfuls of his silver-white locks as he lay on the floor with one of her bedtime books on his face.

 

Fascinated by her taciturn playmate and instinctively sensing he was someone important, Sarada refused to go to bed when the time came. Sakura was at a loss when Kakashi shrugged and said he didn't mind having the child join them for dinner. She tried not to feel jealous when Sarada squealed with delight and clapped happily watching him eat. Apparently, he didn't have any qualms about toddlers seeing what he looked like beneath the mask.

 

Sarada eventually fell asleep cuddled happily against his ninken, unable to keep her little eyes open more than an hour after her usual bed time. Sakura carefully lifted the sleeping child and carried her to the bedroom while Kakashi cleared the table. When she came back out, he was slouched against the wall with his head bowed and both hands in his pockets.

 

"Sorry, I'm not much company tonight."

 

Sakura folded her arms across her chest and chuckled. "A little girl is sleeping happily because she disagreed."

 

Grey eyes looked at her apologetically as he stepped forward. "I meant for you. I'm beat, Sakura. Naruto would probably be better—"

 

"No."

 

She couldn't quite meet his questioning gaze. "I like that you care about me," she offered and knitted her fingers anxiously together. "Just me."

 

It was also new and completely uncharted territory. Confiding in Naruto would've set the hot-headed blonde off; ranting about Sasuke this and Sasuke that. Ino, whom she'd also considered, would've also ranted on Sasuke and probably convince her to do something stupid to get the rumour mills running again.

 

Her former sensei offered a privacy the two loud blondes couldn't, and an understanding that what she needed wasn't to vent or to blame or to fix anything, but to heal. And what she needed to heal, at the moment, was to not feel lonely.

 

He ran a hand through his hair and his shoulders slumped visibly. "Then I'll stay as long as you want. But I'm going to lie down."

 

She chuckled and followed him to the living room, taking a seat on the floor as he stretched out on the sofa. "Anything I can get you, Hokage-sama?"

 

"Don't call me that," he yawned.

 

"Alright, sensei."

 

"That's worse."

 

Pink brows raised in surprise. "So how do I address you?"

 

He turned to her, looking completely exhausted and his eyelids already dropping. "Just my name, Sakura."

 

"Okay… Kakashi."

 

His lips moved under the mask in what she imagined was a smile. "Better."

 

She propped her arm up on the coffee table, rested her head on it, and watched him succumb to sleep. He was completely out after just a few breaths.

 

It would be so easy to just reach over and take a peek beneath the mask now. While a younger Sakura would have seized the opportunity, the current Sakura was hesitant and unwilling to breach the newly acquired confidence he'd entrusted her with. Was this a test? She wouldn't put it past him.

 

"For a busy man you sure do nap a lot."

 

If what she gleamed from archived mission reports and official medical records were correct, Kakashi could benefit from some regular company too. It was bits and pieces of his younger life picked up discretely over the years, but it was enough to be certain that he'd been carrying a deep heartache alone for much, much longer than her. 

 

Which would explain his recurring lack of proper rest and need to nap so often.

 

He stirred in his sleep and her hand moved, reflexively, to catch some stray locks before they could fall over his face and brushed them aside; her fingers tracing feather-light touches along his masked face. Blood rushed to her cheeks and ears and she held her breath, momentarily terrified that he'd wake from the whisper of contact.

 

When he didn't, she exhaled in relief and laid her head back on the table. There was enough visible facial contours to indicate the sleeping man was not unhandsome beneath the mask. But if Sakura was ever asked and she'd been inclined to tell, she'd have said his most attractive and expressive features were already visible. Maybe Kakashi knew it as well, because whenever she felt him looking her way there was never judgement or silent criticism behind his grey eyes; only kindness, concern, and understanding.

 

Expressions she'd been desperately seeking in darker eyes and a handsomer face that might as well be a full mask for all the emotion it didn't show.

 

 "It's refreshing to have such sociable company," she sighed softly. "Would be weird to talk to myself all evening."

 

Feeling her own eyelids getting heavy, she pushed herself up to her feet and went to fetch a spare blanket from the closet. She threw it over her guest's sleeping form and switched the lights off.

 

"Sweet dreams, Kakashi."

 

———

 

The third and fourth time they had dinner was much like the first, with light banter over delicious food. Private discussion was limited and reserved for later in the evening over drinks. They could test each other's comfort levels then, but were so careful not to overstep boundaries that they mostly just sat in amicable silence.

 

He told her that his father taught him how to play go, and that he'd once (very briefly) mentored Sasuke's brother.

 

She told him that she'd originally planned to move into the old Uchiha estate, but decided against it when she found it far too large and intimidating.

 

Kakashi observed, from the general way she reacted to topics related to Sasuke and being an Uchiha, that Sakura was very loyal and protective. But her eyes would cloud a little when she spoke, and her hands would curl into her dress and not unclench until they'd move on to something else.

 

She was also, for the most part, unable to look him in the eye during those conversations. It bothered him a little and made it difficult to decide whether pressing or dropping the issue would be better.

 

When silence fell between them on the fourth evening, he decided to pull out his copy of Icha icha Tactics and continue reading it.

 

The sofa shifted as she scooted beside him and ran her fingers over the book's heavily worn and faded binding. "This must be your favourite."

 

"It is."

 

He smiled as she leaned into his arm to peak at the pages he had open. Kakashi didn't try to hide his amusement when her brows eventually raised and she pulled back with a slight flush in her cheeks.  He turned and gave her a bemused look.

 

"Sorry," she said, flustered. "That was rude of me."

 

"I don't mind." He lowered the book and placed it on his lap. "Besides, it was rude of me to have brought it out.  Would you rather we talk?"

 

"About Icha icha?!"

 

"If you like," and his eyes squinted up playfully.

 

Her lips pulled into an equally mischievous grin. "Wha—"

 

A masked shadow landed suddenly on the balcony.

 

Both Kakashi and Sakura were in front of the door in ready stances by the time the figure rose to his feet. The ANBU bowed deeply. "Apologies, Hokage-sama. Your presence is required."

 

Sakura frowned. "This late?"

 

The masked figure nodded curtly.

 

Kakashi scratched the back of his head and sighed. "Can't be helped."

 

He took a step out onto the balcony but felt a hand on his arm gently pulling him back. Emerald-green eyes locked with his and he was taken back by the concern and worry etched in them.

 

Sakura pressed her other hand on his chest, leaned up against him, and brushed her lips on his cheek. "Be safe," she whispered as she let go and stepped away.

 

He stared after her for a long moment.

 

"Hokage-sama."

 

The urgency in the ANBU's tone was unmistakable. Kakashi nodded at his escort and turned one last time to the woman in the apartment. His brow furrowed, still confused by her sudden action and how, if anything, he should respond.

 

"Goodnight Hokage-sama," she said and bowed deeply.

 

When she raised her head, he shot her a stern look that he hoped said 'we'll continue this later' and returned the bow.

 

"Goodnight Sakura."

 

And with that, two shadowy figures disappeared into the night.

 

———

Chapter Text

"What's the problem, Kakashi?" Tsunade had teased as she sauntered towards him. "Never seen an old woman before?"

 

"Not so much of one, no." He said and held a green silk robe out in her general direction. The strong smell of whiskey and beer assaulted his nostrils. Shizune had apologized when he arrived, saying the former Hokage had drunkenly threatened to run off without her clothes if they didn't get him. From the edge of his peripheral vision, he saw her naked figure reach out and take it from him. He sighed with relief when she started to slowly slip it on. "You wanted to see me?"

 

"I did. There is a matter I wish to discuss. You see, we'd both chosen to mask ourselves from the world. You had your reasons and I had mine, but after a while it just became habit, didn't it?" She stood in front of him and crossed her arms. "Look at me."

 

He turned his head slowly, warily, and blinked. Tsunade's glamour was gone and the truth of her age stared boldly at him. "You've aged pretty well," he responded honestly. What he didn't say was how much older she actually was compared to her glamour.

 

"Tell me, what was I hiding in the end? My vanity? My heart?" Wide, glassy eyes searched his face for an answer as she reached up to it with both hands. "What is YOUR mask really for?"

 

Kakashi stepped out of her reach and nodded to the shadows. Two ANBU immediately flanked the former Hokage and held her steady. "Are you bent on spending the rest of your life without anyone knowing the real you?" she called after him.

 

"All faces are hidden to the blind."

 

"But it's not just our face we end up hiding, is it?" Her lips twitched in a bitter smile. "Live as long as I have and there will be regrets."

 

"There is always regrets."

 

"But how many were a choice?”

 

———

 

Sakura tapped her pen on the table and stared distractedly out the window. Three full nights had passed since Kakashi's abrupt departure from her apartment. That was three full days spent nervously anticipating mission-related injuries flooding in, anxiously checking the news, and restlessly standing on her balcony scanning the horizon.

 

No serious medical emergencies occurred that she was aware of, so she was grateful for that. Because he'd left so abruptly, they had not been able to set a date for the next dinner. She'd left a message at his office the next morning proposing one but didn't receive a response. The fact that the proposed date was now this very evening, exactly four nights later, bothered Sakura more than she’d like to admit.

 

"Idiot," she muttered under her breath and dropped her forehead to the table with a groan. The kiss on the cheek had probably been a mistake. What felt like a completely natural and appropriate gesture at the time now seemed, in all likelihood, to have been too much too soon.

 

Would he withdraw his offer of company because of the supposed indiscretion? She hoped not, but you could never know with geniuses.

 

A knock on the door jolted her upright again and Ino burst into the office laughing. "Hey, guess what? Konoha's most eligible bachelor just walked in and asked for you."

 

Sakura stood from the table and her friend gasped, shaking her head in reproach. "Tch. You're hopeless."

Ino licked her thumb and came over to wipe an ink stain from her friend's forehead. "What, did you hit your head on some forms?"

 

"Something like that," she mumbled and smoothed out her dress. Then she shot the blonde a look of delayed comprehension. "Did you just say…"

 

"Yep." Ino smirked and folded her arms across her chest. "So, talk to me! First the private garden and now this."

 

A pink brow rose warily. "It's not like that.”

 

"I figured as much," the blonde conceded with a sigh. "But there IS something and the gossip-hungry harpies downstairs are probably circling him as we speak."

 

Sakura felt her cheeks redden and she looked away. "He's just helping me through a rough patch."

 

Blonde features softened with sympathy. Ino knew exactly what rough patch meant. "Is he the one you spilled to that night?"

 

Sakura nodded sheepishly. "I'm sorry."

 

"What for?" Ino laughed. "I remember you being all tension and nerves that day and thinking, 'man, it's going to be messy getting it out of you'. I even told Sai not to wait up. But then you got home and it was just gone. All of it." She waved her arms for emphasis.

 

"Uh, good?"

 

"I'd say so, yeah." Pale eyes narrowed thoughtfully. A conspiratorial smile crept slowly across her face. "The Rokudaime is a pretty sweet choice, actually."

 

"For what?" Sakura didn't hide the suspicion in her tone.

 

Ino shook her head and ushered her friend out the door. "Nevermind. Better get down there before the harpies sink their claws into him!"

 

———

 

Ino had not been wrong. A crowd of giggling women were gathered in the lobby when Sakura arrived. More women pushed past her as they came in from the street. And standing in the thick of it was a familiar shock of silver-white hair.

 

Sakura sighed and began pushing her way towards the centre, feeling no guilt whatsoever as she infused a little chakra into her arms and shoved.

 

"Are you not feeling well, Hokage-sama?" A female voice purred from within the crowd.

 

"Not really, no," she heard Kakashi sigh. "I've been feeling a terrible ache in my heart lately. I fear it may be broken."

 

A collective 'awwww' filled the room.

 

Sakura rolled her eyes and tried not to gag. "Maybe its heart burn," she said loudly.

 

Heads turned and shot her looks of annoyance, but she ignored them because she could see Kakashi now. A nurse stepped closer to him and boldly placed a hand on his chest. She batted her eyes flirtatiously. "Would you like me to take a look at you?"

 

He cupped both hands around the nurse's and lifted it from his chest. Kakashi darted a glance towards Sakura and winked. Then his gaze intensified on the nurse’s and his entire demeanour shifted. "A beautiful woman,” he began, his voice low and seductive, “is only second to Time as the ultimate healer of the heart." He took a step back as the nurse— and several other women in his immediate vicinity —visibly swooned.

 

Then he disappeared.

 

Sakura felt two hands on her waist and a small burst of air, and in a flash she was around the hall in a vacant patient room. The door closed quietly behind them as he gingerly pulled away from her and lifted a hand in greeting. "Yo."

 

Sakura let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and blinked at him.

 

"Ah," Kakashi raked a hand through his hair and eyed her with some concern. "That was probably too—"

 

"Smooth," she finished for him. "Very smooth."

 

He cocked his head to one side and watched curiously as a series of expressions crossed her face: embarrassment, annoyance, confusion, something indecipherable, and finally, relief.

 

"I was beginning to think you didn't want to see me anymore."

 

His eyes crinkled in a smile. "Missed me?"

 

"Of course!" She cried and punched him in the arm. Then she slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him. "You could've at least sent me a message that you were okay.”

 

She snuggled her cheek against his vest and exhaled with a soft sound of contentment. Hugging Kakashi was fast becoming a guilty pleasure. Sakura blamed it on that first night in the meeting room, but there was something particularly comforting about his embrace. Some of it was likely due to how Kakashi's was so much warmer and receptive than Sasuke's, but not as suffocating or bone-crushing as Naruto's.

 

Some of it was the fact that he'd never denied her one.

 

Kakashi gazed down at her for a long moment, surprised by how easily she'd slipped into a more intimate familiarity with him. He was flattered by her admission, and if he was being honest, he'd missed her too.  The last few nights without her company had been restless, to say the least. His arms slid across her back and his masked lips lightly brush her hair. "I'll try to remember next time."

 

Green eyes looked up at him, bright with hope. "Like tonight?"

 

His arms fell away as he took a step back. "About that…" He hesitated, and the way her expression crumbles to disappointment is like a punch to his gut. "Are you free now? For lunch."

 

"Lunch?" she repeated sceptically. Her eyes glance at the door as the sound of several women loudly rushed passed.

 

"I know a place we can disappear to for a while."

 

Her brows rise in question. "Is this one of those 'perks of being Hokage'?"

 

The positive query makes him visibly relax, and beneath the mask he smiles in silent acknowledgement.

 

Questions she hadn't yet found the time or courage to ask pop into her mind. Perhaps this was the opportunity she needed to ask them.  Sakura rubbed her temple and sighed. "Fine. But only because it's you! I won't get into any trouble, right?"

 

"I'll make sure of it," he chuckled.

 

"I've never skipped work before," Sakura admitted anxiously. "It's so—"

 

"Thrilling?"

 

"—childish."

 

He raised an outstretched arm to her and his expression transforms, exuding the same rakish confidence that charmed the women earlier. "To childish thrills," he said, voice lowered for effect, and the soft rumble in his tone sends a pleasant tingle down her spine.

 

She takes his hand. "You are a terrible sensei."

 

“I know.”

 

———

 

There are things she knows about certain men that, as a medic, even the most intimate of partners would never come to know. Sakura could identify powerful jutsus based on the internal chakra damage left behind.  She knows which ligaments need to be attached to which muscles for specific bloodline limits. And if need be, she is uniquely qualified to identify suitable jinchuuriki candidates.

 

As a medic who'd been sidelined from field missions for the last few years and whose non-surgery patients were usually children, however, it was rare for her to see displays of physical prowess. Especially of an elite shinobi in his top form.

 

Kakashi's taijutsu is breathtaking to watch. His movements so fluid it looked, at times, more like dance than combat manoeuvres. The kata he executed was the most advanced she’d ever seen. And the speed and agility he displayed while hitting every mark with perfect accuracy, left no doubt to his top-rank status. She noted the way the line of muscles along his arms tensed and flexed as he moved, and openly admired how the tank top did nothing to hide the contours of his chiselled torso. When he landed at last on the greens in front of her, Sakura had to applaud. He sauntered over and knelt in front of her, holding an arm out for inspection. A thin sheen of sweat covered his exposed skin and though his face and bare arms were flushed, his breathing was only slightly elevated from all the exertion.

 

"Ready?"

 

She leaned forward, placed two fingers over the pulse on his wrist, and with her other palm pressed against his chest, pushed some explorative chakra into his respiratory system.

 

"Ahh."

 

Sakura tensed. "Is something wrong?"

 

"No," he exhaled. "Just forgot how cool it can feel."

 

They sat in peaceful silence as Sakura mentally counted the beats of his pulse and observed the flow through his body in her mind's eye. After a minute, she sat back and smiled. "Perfect. Your conditioning is level with that of the top applications for ANBU this year."

 

"Our applicants this year must be weak," he snorted and they both shared a chuckle. He sat down beside her and pulled the long sleeve shirt she handed him over his head. Then she passed an unopened takeout box to him before dutifully turning her back so he could eat. She allowed her eyes to wander appreciatively over the Hatake garden, delighted to be back so soon. The white petals of the cherry trees had mostly given way to the new growth of green leaves, and the remaining few petals drifted down lazily into the nearby pond.

 

Along the far wall was a lookout post she hadn't noticed the first time, and a little movement indicated it was occupied. She knew the Hokage's private guards were ever-present but kept a respectful distance. She idly wondered if they'd snuck a peek at Kakashi's performance or had vigilantly looked outward.

 

"You know," she giggled quietly. "This sort of did turn into a working afternoon."

 

She tried not to cringe at the sound of chopsticks scraping against the carton intermingled with several loud slurps and gulps. "You wanted something to justify leaving the hospital," he said between slurps.  "My mistake was letting you convince me to do a fitness test."

 

“Your medical file hasn't been updated since before becoming Hokage!” she said defensively. “This'll improve your care in the future.”

 

“In case something happens,” he read between the lines and if he’d been looking, he’d have seen Sakura shift uncomfortably. "Do you have everything?"

 

"Mostly," she replied softly and sucked in her bottom lip. "Could I check your eyes?" Time and circumstances had prevented her from inspecting the new eye Naruto gave him after his sharingan was stolen, and up until recently she'd simply forgotten to follow up.

 

She felt him move closer. "Of course," he said, the lightest brush of skin on her shoulder indicating he was in position. Sakura turned to face him and pressed her hands on his temples. In her mind's eye, his eyes looked as normal on the inside as they did on the outside with no visible signs of transplantation. It was as if he'd had two matching and perfectly working eyes all along. "Incredible," she whispered under her breath.

 

He opened one eye a slit and studied her concentrated face. The Strength of a Hundred seal on her forehead shimmered lightly while she worked. This close to her, Kakashi couldn't deny that some of the gossip had been right about one thing — Sakura was by far the most beautiful medic he'd ever seen. He didn't blame the poor shinobi who'd awoken from a near-death experience, seen her face hovering over his, and promptly kissed her. He'd have mistaken her for the goddess of the afterlife, too. The thought draws his gaze down to her softly parted lips and he breathes in sharper than expected.

 

The cool tingly feeling behind his eyes turn warm as she switches her examination. A moment later, her brows furrow and her lips curl unpleasantly. He feels the warmth swiftly flow down his chakra channels and back up again.  To the unsuspecting, the sensation may have felt startling and invasive, but to Kakashi it only mildly tickled.

 

He had a pretty good idea what she was looking for.

 

Sakura drew herself back on her heels and chewed on her bottom lip for a long moment. The chakra burns she'd found around his left eye were disconcerting. Sure they were old and long ago healed, but they were clear signs of chakra depletion. COMPLETE chakra depletion.

 

Kakashi calmly held her gaze and waited. At length she asked, "Did something happen to you some time before the sharingan was stolen?"

 

He nodded.  "I died."

 

"What?"

 

"I fought Pein and lost," he explained with a light shrug. "Choji learnt the weakness in his attack and I used my remaining chakra to help him escape."

 

"And you d—" Sakura couldn't believe what she was hearing. She shook her head in disbelief. "It must have been traumatic."

 

"Not really," he rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, his gaze relaxed as it drifted off to a middle-distance. Having the opportunity to see his father again and saying the things he needed to say had healed his soul before Naruto's unyielding 'Will of Fire' healed his body. He'd been given the chance to say a proper goodbye, and for that he was grateful.

 

A warm hand dropped on his and when his gaze returned to her, he was surprised to see pain in her eyes. Her expression was hurt, confused.  "Why didn't you tell me?"

 

He sighed. "Because it didn't matter."

 

Icy coils seemed to wrap around Sakura's heart and squeeze. Her mouth opened and closed quietly.

 

Kakashi regretted the words the moment they'd left his lips. "My life was restored with everyone else's that day," he reminded calmly, but it was too late. Her eyes burnt with hot tears and she trembled with anger and frustration. "I'm still here, Sakura." he added gently.

 

"I know," she said shakily and wiped at her face with closed fists. "I just I hate that you didn't tell me." It was infuriating how little he thought of himself. Didn't he realize how important he was? That there were people who cared about him?

 

He wrapped his hands around hers and brought them to his lips in silent apology. Through his mask, he could taste the salt of her tears. Kakashi rubbed his thumbs over her knuckles and made a choice then.

 

"If you want it, my life is yours from now on."

 

Sakura sniffed back a cry, and when he looked up, there was a soft glimmer in her eyes. "Drama queen."

 

"And by 'yours'," he said with a kind smile. "I mean your responsibility from now on."

 

"I wouldn't trust anyone else with you, anyway."

 

The way her face brightened with laughter then, even as she was still wiping tears from her cheeks (tears wept for him and his 'death', he later realized), warmed him in a way he hadn't felt in a long, long time.

 

Their eyes met. The steadiness of his gaze and slight upturn of his brow calmed Sakura, and her breath caught as it dawned on her what exactly he was including with the offer. "Will this be an official title?" she asked cautiously. "The Hokage's personal medic?"

 

"If you want.”

 

"And you would…" she bit down on her bottom lip and felt the blood rush to her ears. "Submit to a full physical?"

 

"If you want,” he repeated, amusement thick in his tone. “Though I’d hope you’d only ask if absolutely necessary.”

 

Sakura frowned sceptically. "Dental. Do you even have that?"

 

"Yes."

 

Her jaw dropped. "How?"

 

"I visit a dentist," he answered matter-of-factly and she almost screamed with a wholly different kind of frustration.

 

She inhaled sharply and counted down silently from ten. He watched her patiently, quietly entertained by the sudden shifts in her mood he was evoking.

 

“So there’s someone out there who knows your face?”

 

“Sakura, I'm secretive not paranoid.” he admonished and shrugged. "A handful of civilians at most."

 

That explains the crowd of eager women earlier, she thought, feeling slightly disheartened. But her pulse quickened again at the obvious conclusion. "You would show me?"

 

"My medic should know me better than anyone, don’t you think?”

 

My medic. There was an affectionate tone to the way he said it and Sakura couldn't say she didn't like it. A small part of her conscience pointed out the very likely possibility that he was playing her, teasing her with this juicy offer so she wouldn't press further details about his previously unknown death.  But for the most part, the 12-year-old Sakura within was bursting with giddy anticipation.

 

Her eyes widened in shock as he tucked two fingers under his mask and began to expose his cheek and lower jaw with deliberate slowness.

 

"DON'T!" She lunged forward and stopped his hand from revealing more. Kakashi looked both surprised and terribly amused. He released the mask and she let go with a sigh of relief.  "I mean, not now." Her gaze fell to her feet and a shy smile spread on her face. "Maybe the next time we have dinner, I won't bring out the centrepiece."

 

(She strongly suspected she would be delighted with what she saw, but she wanted to be prepared to school her reaction. Looks weren't everything, but she couldn’t deny that she had deeply-ingrained expectations.)

 

Her choice to wait was unexpected, but not entirely out of character. She was going to want to make the moment memorable. When he started keeping Sakura company, he'd been prepared for the very real possibility that she'd eventually see him with his mask off. So it had been interesting to watch as Sakura voluntarily chose to put the barriers between them every time, assuming it was what he wanted.

 

(A part of him was worried she'd hyped up her expectations. Looks weren't everything, but then again she did marry an Uchiha.)

 

"It might be a while," he warned. "I'm leaving tonight and will be gone for a few days."

 

"Oh... okay."

 

The lack of details made it clear that it was some kind of mission. High ranking, if it required the Hokage. Sakura sighed and pushed herself up to her feet. He did the same and caught her hand with his, squeezing lightly before letting it fall away. "I'll see you when I get back."

 

She hugged herself and smiled warmly. Waiting was something she'd gotten pretty good at, after all.

 

"You better."

 

———

 

Sakura blew softly at the steam coming from her tea cup and nodded absently to a question Ino directed her way. Her gaze wandered back to the light but steady rain fall outside the window and she wondered, idly, if it was also raining where Kakashi was. She imagined him standing out there, face serene and tilted heavenward, enjoying the feel of raindrops. Would he have taken his mask off to taste the droplets? The thought makes her smile wistfully.

 

"Hey, Forehead, you gonna leave me hanging?"

 

Green eyes blinked and refocused on her friend staring at her from across the table. "Hmn?"

 

"Have you heard from him?"

 

She shook her head, "no."

 

It was five days since she'd last seen him. Five days since he offered to take his mask off for her.

 

Ino frowned and took a long sip of her drink. "This has got to be the longest he's gone without contacting you, isn't it?"

 

Sakura shrugged absently.

 

"I don't know how you can stand it."

 

"What?"

 

"The waiting and not knowing."

 

"You get used to it," she said and took a long, indulgent sip of her tea. "Besides, his mission is important."

 

Ino's jaw tightened with clear disapproval. She said, haltingly, "Funny, I thought you pledged to love each other above all else. Including missions."

 

Sakura straightened, alarmed by the bite in Ino's remark and realising belatedly who she'd actually been inquiring about. "What?"

 

The blonde waved her hand dismissively. "Just poking around to see if there's a fire to stomp out." Ino paused to chew on a mouthful of delicious cake and to study her friend looking down at her cup in discomfort. "You don't exactly talk much about your relationship anymore."

 

Gone were the days when Sakura would gush about every smile and brush of the hand received from Sasuke. Ino had bit her tongue back then about certain aspects of the relationship that seemed— in comparison to her relationship with Sai and what she knew of everyone else dating at the time —abhorrently lacking, choking it up to the unusual nature of dating the 'bad boy of the entire shinobi world' (and, okay, maybe even some residual resentment that Sakura had 'won' their childhood rivalry over Sasuke in the end).  But on days like today, seeing her friend look so yearningly out the window and knowing just how many tears and emotional breakdowns were had because of it, she couldn't help but feel anger and regret that she didn't say something earlier.

 

"It is what it is," Sakura replied at last. They were both old enough now to understand that nothing ever turns out exactly as one imagines. Sometimes compromises are made.

 

Ino reached out and placed a hand over hers. "Just answer me honestly— are you happy?"

 

Sakura knows the why and the whom the question really applies to. But in that moment, she thinks of someone with kind, grey eyes crinkling easily with humour despite the years of loneliness and pain behind them.

 

"Yes," she replied, not quite able to meet her friend's eyes but managing a small, genuine smile.

 

Ino sits back, momentarily stunned, but eventually nods in acceptance. "Okay. But I hope you know Sai and I will always have your back. In case things…" She twirled a finger up and made a dramatic whistling sound as it plummeted down with a SPLAT! on the table. "Cause, you know, Uchiha."

 

Sakura's entire complexion reddens with the secret shame of her little white lie.

 

"Next time, get a guy to take the Haruno name. Less baggage and definitely no travel limitations."

 

"Ino!"

 

"Oh my god, that's it!" the blonde cried and snapped her fingers, her eyes bright with revelation. "Be selfish, Sakura! You owe yourself! You're always 'respecting his choice' and doing things expected of you, but when was the last time you did anything just for yourself?"

 

Sakura couldn't respond to that. She looked down at the cake between them and decided, in this case, action could speak louder than words. She picked up her spoon and began to shovel as much of it as she could into her mouth. Ino grinned and joined in, playfully battling in the end with chopsticks for the last tasty morsels on the plate.

 

Ino won.

 

———

 

Kakashi stepped through the gates of Konoha and breathed in the cool night air. He wondered for the hundredth time that day if it would be weird to go see her at such a late hour.

 

Two weeks and three days had passed since he last Sakura. He missed her.

 

As the trade negotiations dragged on in the Land of Iron, he'd found himself spending more evenings than not sneaking out to quiet places alone and thinking about her.  In just a few visits, Sakura had transformed before his eyes from a wounded and vulnerable-looking creature to something much more… intriguing. Beguiling.

 

Already he'd spent more personal time with her in the past few weeks than he had in the past few years combined.  In fact, he'd spent more of his free time with her than anyone else he could remember in a relatively short time period, and it both surprised and troubled him that he was looking forward to spending more.

 

He was supposed to be a friendly presence helping her not feel alone while she figured things out. That was his role. But Sakura was as strong emotionally as she was physically, and deep down he knew such regular visits were not necessary. Her company had been pleasant in a way that didn’t drain him, and Kakashi wanted them to continue without thinking too hard about the why.

 

The travel back went relatively smoothly, spent mostly in a train and the last stretch to the village by large birds summoned by members of his team.  Unfortunately, that meant he had more time to reflect on the words exchanged in their last encounter and wonder about the growing anticipation in the pit of his stomach.

 

"Get some rest," he said to the team behind him, and they disappeared in a burst of wind and shadows. He shucked his hands into his pants pockets and tilted his head towards the alley. "You too," he said to the shadows. "I owe my medic a visit before retiring for the night."

 

"Were you injured, Hokage-sama?" Alarm and concern clear in the ANBU's tone.

 

"No, I just want to check something." He removed his official Kage robe and hat and handed them to the outstretched arms in the alley. "Bring them in the morning, will you?"

 

"Yes, Hokage-sama. I'll tell the next watch where to find you."

 

Stripped of all official shinobi gear except for his jounin shirt and pants, Kakashi lept to the rooftops and began running towards Sakura's apartment.

 

Two blocks into the village, he slipped on a loose roof tile and clumsily caught himself on a laundry wire. Kakashi glanced around and was glad he dismissed his escort, saving himself the embarrassment. Perhaps he'd underestimated how exhausted he actually was from the journey? He increased the chakra flow to his feet for adhesion and continued forward.

 

A minute later, his right knee gave way and he collided shoulder-first against a chimney stack.

 

Uh-oh.

 

A chill passed through him; something was wrong. He cursed himself for not having noticed the first time and looked up. Assuming he wasn't delusional yet, it looked like Sakura's building was just across the street.  He counted the balconies from the bottom up and jumped to what he figured was her apartment. Collapsing to his knees in front of darkened balcony doors, something clatters behind him from the sloppy entrance and a second later, the lights flick on and a shadow crosses the threshold.

 

"Kakashi!" The door slid open and he's immediately hauled inside by small but strong hands.

 

"Chakra poison," he breathed heavily as he's laid out on a familiar couch. "Soft trigger but fast." The same small but strong hand pressed against his chest and he winced at the heat that seemed to explode from the contact. He tried to get up but she firmly held him down.

 

"Focus on breathing," Sakura instructed gently. "This is probably going to hurt."

 

He opened his eyes and stared at the seal now shining brightly on her creased forehead. Dark stripes flowed from it, spread across her face and gave her green eyes a fierce and ethereal glow. "Goddess," he half-laughed to himself before something like a spark was struck in his chest. The flame roared suddenly into a chakra-hungry inferno that licked and burnt him from the inside out. There was only enough time for Kakashi's eyes to widen in shock before everything turned white.

 

———

Chapter Text

Kakashi awoke to the sound of familiar voices in a heated exchange.

 

"I said he should be in the hospital.”

 

"And I said no. Raises too many questions."

 

“But staying here doesn’t?"

 

“No one's seen him yet and even if they do, gossip is more… manageable.”

 

“I’m his medic not his nurse maid, Shikamaru!”

 

“So take it easy; you’ve done the hard part. Let Ino and I cover the rest.”

 

“For the whole day?”

 

“You said ‘twenty-four hours for observation’.”

 

“When I thought he was going to the hospital!”

 

He pulled a hand over his face and groaned. Listening to them argue was draining him all over again. There's a brief shuffling of feet before a cool hand falls on his arm and squeezes gently.

 

"How are you feeling?"

 

"Alive," he responded thickly and pushed himself up slowly to a sitting position. Shikamaru and two ANBU guards stand near the balcony doors of the living room looking hesitantly at Sakura, kneeling in front of him with pursed lips and an intense look of disapproval. Kakashi's first reaction was to chuckle at the absurdity of her cross look combined with the hearts-and-rainbows printed pyjamas she's wearing. But he curbs it when he senses something off about her, and reaches out to brush pink locks from her forehead. She looks away, her eyes shadowed from lack of sleep and physical exhaustion and it's the seal, visibly shrunk from its original size, that gives him pause. He focuses inwardly and realizes her chakra is flowing inside him, completely filling his channels and keeping him alive. There's only a trace amount of chakra carrying a signature he can sense as his own.

 

A lump forms in his throat and he swallows guiltily at the implication. She'd cured him in the quickest but crudest way possible-- by burning his tainted chakra and performing a complete chakra transfusion. "Thank you, Sakura."

 

"No chakra use for at least twenty-four hours,” she instructed coldly and retrieved the glass of water on the nearby coffee table. "I need to make sure you're converting and recovering chakra normally, so you'll need to stay a bit for observation." Sakura pushed the glass into his hands and stormed back into the kitchen, shutting the screen between the rooms with deliberate force.

 

Kakashi rubbed the back of his head and glanced warily at his second-in-command. "You filled her in, then?"

 

"More or less." Shikamaru nodded and his shoulders visibly relaxed at the pink-haired woman's exit. "Though you probably should've told me you'd be involving her."

 

The men visibly winced at the sound of a cupboard door being slammed in the adjoining room. "Spur of the moment call."

 

"So. Was this it?"

 

"I think so," Kakashi replied and took a long sip of the water in his hand. "Check on the rest of the team to be sure." One of the ANBU guards nodded and disappeared out the balcony.

 

"You feeling okay? Sakura said it almost completely took over your system. That's why she's been adamant you go to the hospital."

 

"No hospital," Kakashi said firmly. He gives his arms and legs tentative stretches before standing up and pushing his hands in his pockets. "Do you have the revised deal?"

 

Shikamaru produced a scroll from his back pouch and laid it out on the coffee table. Kakashi signed the bottom of it and scratched a small remark ending with a scribble of a scarecrow at the end. Then he rolled the scroll up, bit a small bit of skin off his thumb, and sealed the scroll with his blood. "Send it immediately."

 

"Yes, Hokage-sama." Shikamaru and the remaining ANBU bowed before also exiting through the balcony. The way they both glanced at the screen behind him before disappearing, however, makes Kakashi tense.

 

"You bet your life for a business deal!?"

 

He closed his eyes. "For Konoha’s future."

 

He'd made it clear in the talks that whatever test they were going to conduct had to go through him personally. Kakashi just hadn't expected them to take it so literally. A long history of bad blood with shinobi made samurais very suspicious of any official dealings with a hidden village. They just needed to see that their first potential shinobi trading partner was as strong and talented as they claimed to be.

 

Steel infrastructure for medical resources. The Rokudaime had wagered his life for strong foundations in the new era of peace and prosperity.

 

"And if you died?" Sakura hissed under her breath.

 

"I didn't." Kakashi's eyes open and he turns to her, his brow creased with concern. It was well beyond her experience as a shinobi and a medic to dwell on what-ifs, even if she was unhappy with the actions that brought it on. "What's wrong?"

 

"Nothing," she replied coolly and disappeared to the bedroom for a few seconds before returning with towels in her hand. She threw them in his direction and scowled. "I have a toddler waking any moment now and you're filthy."

 

"Sakura…"

 

"It's not my business if you decide to build a trade deal on a stupid bet on your life."

 

Kakashi cringed a little. "I know it sounds that way, but—"

 

"BUT it wasn't your life on the line, was it?" she interrupted, folding her arms across her chest. "Because if memory serves, you offered it to me before you left."

 

Grey eyes looked at her pensively and he braces himself for the inevitable blow.

 

"You USED me!"

 

"I never meant for you to take such drastic measures," he said defensively, though it sounded lame even to his ears.

 

"But I did because I wasn't prepared! You just showed up without warning in the middle of the night, mortally wounded, and I…" panicked. She chokes back the last word. It's unbecoming of her as an experienced medic and shinobi. "I didn't know how much time you had."

 

"I always believed in you."

 

Her hands ball into fists and she presses them to her temple. She hated it when people said things like that. Didn't they know how much pressure it put on a person like her? She bit her lip and muffled a frustrated scream.

 

"You're more capable than you give yourself credit for."

 

"And you're more reckless than I give you credit for," she spat back bitterly and released a long sigh. Her hands lower and her expression becomes resigned. "You could've warned me."

 

His gaze softens and he chuckles. "I didn't want you to worry."

 

"Baka." She punches his arm but there's no real menace in it anymore. She points to a door inside the bedroom and nods. "Go clean up in there."

 

Sakura leaves for the kitchen, but her wrist is caught in a loose hold and she's looking up again at warm, grey eyes. "I am sorry, Sakura," he speaks with deep and genuine remorse. "Thank you for valuing my life."

 

Her chest tightens as she momentarily loses herself in the unguarded affection of his gaze. Her hand slips from his hold and she cradles it subconsciously to her heart. "Someone has to," she murmurs and ducks into the kitchen to start some coffee.

 

Sakura hears the shower turn on as it starts to brew. She yawns and rubs at her bleary eyes as she goes to tidy the living room for a few minutes. She hadn't slept since Kakashi crashed into her balcony a few hours ago, and now the first rays of dawn were peaking on the horizon. A small-ish bundle catches her eye just outside the balcony door and she goes to retrieve it.

 

"Looks like your guy passed by Jounin headquarters for some clothes." Sakura called out and noted one standard-issue shirt, pants and face mask. There's a small note tucked into the pants pocket that she chooses not to inspect.

 

Kakashi emerges from the bedroom rubbing a towel over his face, completely naked except for a loosely hanging towel on his hips.  His hair is washed but hastily dried, so it sticks at odd angles and sprinkles droplets on the floorboards where he stands. Sakura feels blood rush to her ears as she stares, dumbfounded, at his naked and glistening torso. His eyes twinkle with amusement and in her flustered state, she squeaks and throws the bundle at him.

 

Kakashi catches it easily with both hands, letting the towel drop from his face. "Thanks," he chuckles and gives her a devilish, completely maskless grin.

 

Sakura's jaw falls to the ground and her eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets.

 

His grin widens to the most devastatingly handsome smile she'd ever seen and he turns, completely satisfied by her shocked reaction, back to the shower to change.

 

 ——

 

Deal is done but eyes are looking. Hawk delivered.

 

That was the message left in Kakashi's pants pocket. No doubt a spy for the Land of Iron was in Konoha searching for details of his survival. It was why he'd been firmly against a hospital visit-- so the samurai had no basis to request a specific medic along with the supplies and equipment detailed in their agreement. Resources were fine but personnel were the core of Konoha's strength.

 

The second part of the message was purposely ambiguous. He glanced at the woman sitting across the table from him and wondered if she'd recently heard from her long-distance husband. 'Hawk', after all, was his mission name.

 

Her coffee sat cold and forgotten on the table. Sakura was so exhausted she needed to hold her head in her hand, but she couldn't bring herself to close her eyes or look away. Not yet.

 

The view was just too mesmerizing.

 

She'd seen a photo of Kakashi's father, the White Fang Hatake Sakumo, a while back when she first heard that Kakashi was the spitting image of him. While it was true that he'd inherited his father's hair and eyes, the lower half of his face was sharper and more angular than square. In Sakura's opinion, the combination with his silver-white hair bore a stronger resemblance to the Nidaime, Senju Tobirama. The similarity was so striking it made her wonder if Kakashi was actually related to the Senju on his mother's side.

 

The sharpness of his face would've made his passive expressions as cold and intimidating as any Uchiha if not for the small spot below his chin. The beauty mark absolutely entranced her. It was more distinctive than any marking she'd ever seen on a shinobi's face, and the seeming delicateness of it balanced the sharp angles of his nose and jaw.

 

Sakura was undecided on how best to describe him. Good-looking, certainly, and with a physique to boot. Ruggedly handsome, though? Didn't quite fit. The mask had preserved a boyish youthfulness from the weathering of time and natural elements, ensuring there was nothing rough about his facial features. Beautiful played on her tongue every time her eyes lingered on his beauty mark and a hint of a smile curled on his lip.

 

Kakashi's eyes crinkle happily for the umpteenth time that hour. "This isn't what I imagined you meant when you said you wanted me under observation.”

 

That smile. Oh, that smile.

 

Sakura sighed appreciatively. "It suits you."

 

He coughed, nearly choking on the food in his mouth with laughter, and raised a brow. "My face?"

 

"Eating breakfast." Sakura scrunched her nose and stuck her tongue out like she was twelve-years old again. "Yes, your…" exquisite in its remarkably clean-shaven without a hint of morning stubble face. She made a swirling gesture with her hand in his smug direction. "It's better than I expected."

 

He tensed a little with the remark, but saw how relaxed and calm she was and allowed a peaceful silence to stretch between them. "I could get used to this," he said at length.

 

Now it was Sakura's turn to need clarification. "Me staring?"

 

His lips curl into a lopsided grin and, combined with the laughter in his eyes, was the most beautiful expression she'd seen on him yet.  "Eating breakfast with you."

 

She smiles and lowers her head more comfortably onto her arm. It's a mistake, because in the time it takes Kakashi to gulp down his coffee, she's fast asleep. He sits back and regards her sleeping form for a moment, noting the contentment on her face. After some internal debate, he decides to move her to the bedroom. It's his fault she's lacking hours of sleep, so the least he can do is ensure the few she gets is restful.

 

Kakashi scoops her up into his arms but instantly becomes aware that it's been a very, very long time since he'd last carried her anywhere. Her cartoonish pyjamas are deceivingly thin and without the extra layer of a vest between them, he can acutely feel that her body has matured into the curves of a woman. Her fingers curl into his shirt and she nuzzles instinctively into his chest. The dreamy moan that escapes her half-parted lips does something to the pit of his stomach and he moves swiftly, lowering her into the bed so that she sighs happily into the sheets.

 

Kakashi pulls the curtains in the room and stands for a while in the artificial darkness, watching her dream. Perhaps it's all her chakra flowing inside of him, but he's inexplicably drawn to her more than ever before. He studies her peaceful expression while carefully digesting the foreign feeling. In the secret the darkness affords him, he allows himself thoughts of what it might feel like to crawl into the bed with her. To feel her warm body sleeping beside his. To wake to her smile.

 

His ears prick to a soft cry coming from the other room and it derails the dangerous train of thought he's on. It takes him a second to collect himself. Kakashi slips out of the room to attend to the toddler himself… and ask his guard to bring Ino over for help.

 

———

 

A few days later he makes the title official, the Rokudaime's chief medic. Kakashi uses it on several occasions over the next few weeks as an excuse to drop by the clinic and whisk her away for 'extended lunch meetings'. Curiously, it's always on days when Sakura's afternoons are clear of any other appointments. She usually doesn't know her own schedule until the morning of, which makes her wonder how he knows (but never too hard). Spending afternoons with the Rokudaime— whether it really is to go over medical-related issues or just to enjoy each other's company in the privacy of the gardens —become moments Sakura looks forward to on a regular basis.

 

Sometimes she returns the favour by taking a detour after work to pass the Hokage tower. He's always there when she asks after him and usually, by the time she's picked up groceries and Sarada from the daycare, he's waiting for them in front of her apartment.

 

Instead of bringing out the centrepiece for dinner, Sakura draws the balcony curtains. Her heart still flutters every time Kakashi pulls his mask off. She knows the gesture is significant; a way for him to show how comfortable and at ease he is around her. At some point, he starts leaving the mask off even after they're done eating, and she realizes it's because they're alone together. The trust and intimacy it implies only encourages her to get closer.

 

She starts to sit beside Kakashi while eating instead of across the table. She might lean into him while he reads, and he might throw an arm loosely over her shoulder as they sit together and watch Sarada play. Sometimes, hours would stretch without them speaking at all. But their eyes would meet and they would exchange knowing smiles.

 

His smile still dazzles her, and Sakura realizes the expressiveness of his eyes truly ever were only half the story.

 

When they're not together, they try to seek each other out in the crowds. At official gatherings, it's not hard to spot pink hair or a shock of silver-white with a Hokage robe. He's usually surrounded by aides, but occasionally their eyes would meet and steal a smile. One or the other might even walk past and their hands would brush. It's a childish but thrilling gesture, like a secret handshake between friends.

 

Once, Kakashi noticed her twitch and roll her shoulders in discomfort, and he offered to massage the muscles there for her. Performing chakra surgery often required holding a braced position over a patient for an extended period of time so Sakura was no stranger to muscle stiffness. She hummed in pleasure and appreciation as he expertly warmed and loosened the tension from her neck and shoulders. It instantly became the part of their week she looked forward to the most.

 

Eventually, it dawned on Sakura that NOT seeing Kakashi left her restless at the end of the day. She'd gotten accustomed to waking every morning wondering if and when she'd see him, and not seeing him on some days made her feel woefully incomplete. On those nights, she struggled to ignore the implications of her disappointment, pushing down troubling thoughts on how her feelings towards him had developed much more than she'd anticipated. You're projecting a relationship on him, she'd warn herself as she tossed fitfully in bed. It's not real. There's too much at stake to ever fantasize of more.

 

But every time he gives her that dazzling, maskless smile meant only for her, she's tempted. Increasingly, worryingly, tempted.

 

———

 

Summer wanes and the leaves in the garden gradually change colour. The start of autumn brings with it the anniversary of the Shinobi Alliance and  this year, Konoha is hosting the annual gala celebration.

 

Kakashi doesn't think much about it when he asks Sakura to accompany him. There's simply no one else he'd have at his side. It doesn't occur to him until afterwards that it's also the anniversary of the Uchiha attack on the Five Kages. That it's the anniversary of one of the darkest and most miserable days in her life; betraying her friends, being rejected by Naruto and then Sasuke, committed to killing the boy she loved but facing death by his hands instead. That it's a pretty fucked up day she'd rather spend buried under several layers of blankets with buckets of ice cream and tissue and not resurface until the following morning.

 

But when he asks, she gives him an easy smile and accepts without batting an eye. Because it's Kakashi. To say she'd grown fond of his company over the last few months is an understatement— there's a reason his is the only kind memory she has from that terrible day so long ago. That alone would be worth the daunting effort of putting a smile on her face and getting through the celebrations, she tells herself.

 

The day of the gala party comes sooner than later and Sakura's nerves break when she glimpses Kakashi greeting the Five Kages and the leader of the Land of Iron at the gates. Shikamaru, Sai, Ino, and Naruto are with him, each personally taking a Kage to show them to their accommodations. The shame of what she'd said and done to Naruto and Sai all those years ago come flooding back and she ducks into a narrow street before Kakashi can spot her. Eventually, he too disappears into the village with the samurai general, the soon-to-be-official fourth Tsuchikage, and their escorts.

 

The Earth kunoichi is only a little older than Sakura, but unlike her hermit grandfather she is tall and beautiful. There is confidence in her stride. Sakura's eyes narrow jealously with the way she casually slips her arm into Kakashi's as he leads them in the direction of the Hatake garden.

 

"I heard you'll be coming tonight," a soft voice says calmly behind her. "Naruto will be so excited."

 

Sakura jumps and turns, surprised to see Hinata there. Her pale eyes squint in a playful smile and she gives a small nod in greeting. "We haven't seen you in a while."

 

Sakura clasped her hands nervously behind her back and returned the smile. "I've been, uh, busy."

 

"With Kakashi," the Hyuuga nods knowingly and starts back down the street. "I heard you've been spending a lot of time together."

 

Sakura laughs nervously and falls in step with her. "You've heard a lot of things, I guess."

 

"Mostly gossip." A smirk tugs at the corner of Hinata's lips. "But I think it's nice. Neither of you should have to be lonely." She stops in front of a fashion boutique and raises a brow at Sakura. "I ordered my gown for tonight from here. Did you also manage to get one?"

 

"I was thinking of using the dress I wore at your wedding."

 

"Oh, no." Hinata clucked her tongue and shook her head in disappointment. "Ino said you wouldn't have a 'grown-up' dress. Come," She hooked Sakura by the arm and pulled her into the store. "She and Naruto are busy with the kages but she reserved a few gowns for you to try out."

 

It was the cleverest trap Ino had set for her yet. There was simply no way she could say no to Hinata. And if Naruto also knew, then she really couldn't refuse, could she?

 

Sakura sighed and resigned to her fate.

 

———

 

The early evening sky is a clear gradient of violet and dark blue, with the brightest stars already twinkling against the fading daylight. The air is cool and dry, promising lovely outdoor weather for the rest of the evening. Kakashi bowed deeply as the Raikage approached the brightly-lit Hatake garden gates. "Please enjoy the festivities."

 

The normally gruff man grunts in acknowledgement but a smile plays on his lips as he walks by. Kakashi tugs uncomfortably at the high collar of his formal coat and scans the incoming procession of celebrated shinobis and kunoichis anxiously.

 

She's late.

 

A hand falls on his shoulder and squeezes. "Don't worry, Kakashi," the blonde behind him chuckles. "You'll see her when you see her."

 

"Who?" he asks dumbly and doesn't think he likes the way Naruto grins at him in response.

 

"I didn't think anyone could get Sakura to come out tonight."

 

He tilts his head curiously to mask the embarrassing sound of blood pounding in his ears. "Sakura?" he asks. Was he being that obvious?

 

Naruto shrugs. He doesn't want to put his former sensei on the defensive tonight. "I'm tired of greeting. Let's get something to eat!"

 

Everywhere Naruto goes attracts an adoring crowd, this Kakashi knows. An hour passes quickly in the blonde's boisterous company, but he finds he has little appetite for food or conversation. Kakashi is half-listening to Naruto's elaborated retelling of some battle or another to an entranced crowd, low-key declining offers of company from a few women (and men), when he catches a flash of pink from the corner of his eye.

 

He gets up and approaches the dance floor cautiously. Across the sea of dancing bodies he sees it— the familiar shade of pink hair held up in loose curls by a crown of ornate, silver cherry blossoms. A space appears in the sway of moving bodies that reveals Sakura, for the span of a single breath, in her full elegance.

 

Kakashi swallows hard, his throat suddenly dry and thick.

 

She is stunning. The gown is an off-shoulder, dark sapphire blue. Layers of translucent, gossamer fabric in gradient hues of blue flare out from the waist to shimmer when she moves. Kakashi's eyes are drawn to the centrepiece of Sakura's outfit— an elaborate silver necklace hugging her neck and stretching down to clasp a green gemstone over her chest. The ornate swirls of the necklace are reminiscent of chakra flames and the gemstone is a remarkably similar shade of emerald as Sakura's eyes.

 

He makes his way slowly around the dance floor, never taking his eyes off her. She is chatting amiably with guests from Sand. Kakashi gets close enough to hear her laugh and the expression on her face is so light and carefree that it fills him with yearning. He wishes she would laugh like that more often.

 

He pauses a few metres behind her because she hasn't noticed him yet, and he takes a moment to admire the stunning profile she strikes from that angle. The gown flows behind her with a single strand of silver swirls running down the back. The gown trails a little, pulling the dress line down to mid-back. Kakashi's eyes savour the sight of her bare shoulder blades. He knows the contours of that neckline; has felt the raw strength and power flexed in its musculature. His fingers ache with desire to trace the soft dip between her shoulder blades, to run down the length of her arms and capture her hand in his.

 

The movement of bodies still on the dance floor as the music shifts to a slow tempo. Many singles leave the dance floor as pairs step in.

 

Kakashi's pulse quickens when a Sand shinobi offers an outstretched arm to Sakura. She hesitates, and in a heartbeat he's beside her, hooking her arm to rest on his. Her eyes raise steadily to meet his and the look of relief in them gives him courage. His eyes crinkle in a smile. "My apologies. I believe I have the first dance."

 

The Sand is startled but concedes easily enough with a nod. Kakashi leads her to the centre of the dance floor, placing his free hand on her hip and lifting the other to hold her hand to the side.  Sakura tucks the trailing part of her dress to a discrete clasp on her waist while he looks down at their feet and frowns. As Hokage he's seen countless people dance at events just like this and knows from observation how this is supposed to proceed. For Kakashi-of-the-thousand-jutsus, dancing should be easy enough.

 

The first few steps come out stiff and mechanical. Sakura places a finger under his chin and lifts his gaze gently to hers. "It's easier if you keep your eyes on me," she smiles. It take a few more mis-steps to find the rhythm, but true to his name Kakashi is a fast learner, and soon they are gliding across the dance floor with remarkable grace and elegance.

 

He becomes vaguely aware of a thinning of bodies on the dance floor. That the slow waltz is only continuing because they've attracted an audience. But he's so enchanted by the moment that he can't bring himself to break from the intensity of her gaze. There is laughter in her eyes. Exuberance radiates off her in waves, practically making her skin glow.

 

For a little while longer, there is only the two of them caught in this dream state.

 

The music finally comes to an end and they part, reluctantly, to the sounds of applaud. The magic and secret thrill in her eyes clear as Sakura turns to acknowledge the couple approaching them.

 

"That was some real fancy foot work," Naruto whistled. "I think you just doubled your fan base, Kaka-sensei."

 

"You looked so wonderful," Hinata chirped in and pulled out her camera to show Sakura. Her cheeks reddened at the close-up shot capturing an undeniable glow on her face as she beamed up at her dance partner. Only part of Kakashi's shoulder and sleeve are visible with no recognizable detail to identify him.

 

Naruto peaks over his wife's shoulder at the photo and barks a laugh. "HA! That'll DEFINITELY get the idiot running back to you, Sakura!"

 

Her cheeks turn a deeper shade of red as she steals a glance at Kakashi. But he's either genuinely distracted by something across the garden or convincingly pretending not to have heard. He strikes a rather dashing profile in that pose, and for the first time Sakura notices that his normally wild mop of silver-white hair has been combed back along the sides; the front and top still stubbornly defying gravity. The high collar of his formal coat is trendy and the gold trim gives him a regal air. She steps back to fully admire the uniform-cut of his coat, with square shoulders and overlapping lapels. The waist is fitted and tied with a gold, silk sash that makes the long ends of the coat flare out over matching black pants. Red and gold flames trim the bottom of the coat in a more formal take on the customary Hokage-style.

 

"Looks like your dance card is filling up," Naruto grins, pointing at the line of women gathering at the edge of the dance floor.

 

"Unfortunately, I think I've filled my quota for the evening."

 

Kakashi leans close to Sakura's ear and whispers under his breath, "Meet me behind the main building." He disappears as a shadowy blur and there's a collective moan of disappointment. Naruto raises his free arm to Sakura and, with a giant grin on his face, escorts his two favourite women off the dance floor.

 

———

 

Kakashi is stepping off the path just before the main building when a man he recognizes as one of the samurai escorts intercepts him. The man bows formally. "Congratulations on an exceptional performance."

 

Kakashi tucks his hands into his pants pockets and shifts his stance impatiently. "How can I help you?"

 

"On behalf of our general, I wish to inquire about the identity of your dance partner."

 

Grey eyes narrow suspiciously. "What for?"

 

"Curiosity, mostly."

 

There is a long, tense silence. Then, "Uchiha. Uchiha Sakura."

 

The man scowls instantly, confirming some of the Rokudaime's suspicions. "That is… unfortunate."

 

Kakashi relaxes, takes that as the end of the discussion and steps passed the samurai. He tries to ignore the bitter aftertaste on his tongue and the guilt riding on his coat tails.

 

Unfortunate, indeed.

 

———

Chapter Text

Some thoughts can only be permitted in darkness. Thoughts that prowl along the edge of shadows and prey on the fringes of consciousness, thriving on the hope of one day being brought to light.

 

Somehow, sometime in the last few weeks Kakashi's regard for Sakura had grown from deeply-rooted respect and admiration to something distinctly more than just friends. He tried to convince himself otherwise, arguing that years of being detached and alone had confused their prolonged personal contact for something else, but when he'd looked at her across the dance floor he knew he'd just been deceiving himself.

 

A part of him understands the moral obligation to withdraw and put some distance between them. But another, more stubborn part of him argues that Sakura is a full grown and completely competent woman who doesn't need to be told what she wants and what she needs. She'd asked him for companionship and if he'd grown attached along the way then it was entirely his burden to bear, not hers.

 

Except he knows that her regard for him has changed, too. He's seen it in the way she looks at him that her feelings have also developed into something akin to true affection. It thrills and emboldens him in a way he's never quite felt before.

 

It makes him think of dangerous things.

 

It makes him want to be reckless.

 

It makes him want.

 

 ———

 

Sakura finds him alone and leaning against a tree cloaked in shadows. Filtered light from the festivities faintly outlines his profile: shoulders hunched, arms crossed, and head bowed low in serious meditation.  There is something about his composure that unsettles her and, for a moment, she considers returning to the party to leave him a few more minutes with his thoughts. But then she reminds herself that he's been waiting for her, and it's such a strange and foreign concept to keep Kakashi waiting that she defies her better judgement and steps forward.

 

His eyes raise almost immediately and he pushes himself from the tree to stand at his full height. Curiously, there is no slouch in his stance as he reflexively places his hands into his pants pockets and smiles at her with his eyes.

 

"Sakura."

 

His expression softens as her name rolls from his masked lips, and Sakura can't help but smile in return. She hadn't realized just how anxious she'd been when he disappeared from the dance floor until she felt it melt away under his steady gaze. Since when did he have such an effect on her? She pushed the worry to the back of her mind and stopped in front of him.

 

"Aren't you enjoying the party?"

 

"Just wanted to steal a moment."

 

Sakura raised her brow in amusement, "Alone?"

 

"With you."

 

In the dim light that reaches their shadowed corner of the garden, her smile illuminates. Kakashi's hand moves of its own volition and lightly caresses her cheek. Her eyes flutter close and in the privacy the shadows afford him, he lets his hand trail down her neck and trace the swirls of her necklace to the emerald on her chest. He stares at it for a long moment, enchanted, before her chest raises in a deep intake of breath and her eyes open once more. Grey eyes twinkle with sincere admiration. "You look incredible."

 

She smiles demurely and blushes, more from the compliment his eyes give her than from the words. "You clean up pretty well, too."

 

He scratches lazily at the back of his head. "Are you enjoying the party?"

 

A light and pleasant laughter fills the air between them. “I can honestly say I've been swept off my feet.” Delighted green eyes fix on him. “You still surprise me.”

 

Kakashi smiles and for a moment, he forgets the heaviness of his thoughts before she arrived. He takes her hand in his and leads her wordlessly into the shadows behind the tree, lifting the foliage to reveal a hidden path.

 

"Where are we going?"

 

"Does it matter?"

 

Sakura rolled her eyes and laughed. No, it really didn't. Under a sapphire moon her face is bright with wonder, trusting, and beautiful.

 

The wild and secretive half of the garden unfolds before her and seems to come alive in a play of shadow and moonlight. Strange and exotic flowers illuminate their path. An evening breeze carries away the sound of the festivities and is replaced by the rustle of leaves and a lone but beautiful birdsong.

 

Kakashi's fingers intertwine with hers and holds more tightly as the path gets narrower; the lush plant life crowding them closer. Leaves brush Sakura's bare skin, making it prickle, and she pulls back instinctively to wrap her arms around herself.

 

They are very very alone here.

 

He glanced back at her, noting the sudden uncertainty in her gaze and defensiveness of her folded arms. Kakashi raised an outstretched hand. "We're almost there."

 

They reach a clearing a few metres later.  Soft and distant music from the festivities drifts down to the open space. Low grass and moss cover the ground. Tucked in the furthest end of the clearing and faintly outlined by the moonlight, Sakura makes out a small building. It makes her think the place had once been, or had planned to be, a private training ground. She looks to Kakashi, who'd also surveyed the clearing, and feels his hand squeeze hers. He pulled his mask down and offered her a wry smile. "Ta-da."

 

His hand loosened to let go but she held tight and stepped into the clearing with him in tow. "Ladies' choice," she teased playfully as they reached the centre and placed his free hand on her waist. Sakura took lead with the first dance steps, but Kakashi soon took over with the next few, pulling her close enough to raise and splay his hand over the bare skin of her back. He held her captured hand to his chest and felt her free hand fall from his shoulder to his upper arm.

 

Moonlight shimmered down on them. It wraps them slowly as they move, pulling them close, closer than they would've ever dared with a staring audience, and soon the world falls away. There is only the two of them, the moon, and the steady rhythm of moving together in dream-like harmony. Sakura looks up and is flustered by the warmth and affection in his gaze.

 

Kakashi's touch is hot on her back. She shivers reflexively with a cool breeze and he draws her closer still, till she has no choice but to lean her head on his shoulder. His breath tickles her ears. She looks up again and there is an undeniable charge between them when their eyes lock.

 

"Sakura." His voice is soft but thick with an unspoken affection. His eyes linger on hers, darkening with an intensity that she feels deep into her bones. The shock of recognition jolts her then; it's not the kind of feeling one gets from just a friend.

 

The music goes on but they stop, frozen in space. Sakura knows they have reached the precipice of something. Under her hand she can feel his heart ramming hard against his chest, but the intensity is carefully removed from his eyes and replaced with a calm expression.

 

Slowly, she raised her free hand up to cup his face. Never taking his eyes off her, he leaned into her touch and pressed his lips softly to her palm. "Kakashi,” she whispered, quietly stunned by his boldness.

 

He folded a hand over hers and closed his eyes.

 

She swallowed. "What are you doing?"

 

"Playing by ear."

 

He lowered his head slowly until their foreheads touched. His nose nuzzled hers gently and she could feel the smile on his lips as it brushed her cheek. She closed her eyes and held her breath as he pressed a soft kiss to the corner of her lips. “Sakura,” he breathed, softer still, and she shivered involuntarily. Her heart was beating so fiercely now she could feel it in her throat. Fingers slid into her hair, tilting her head just enough to align their lips, and when the moisture and heat of his mouth press lightly against hers, her heart stops.

 

The world explodes in a terrifying flash of blood and death and violence behind her eyes. 

 

Panicked, she pushes away from him and disappears in a puff of smoke. Kakashi steps back as a log drops and rolls at his feet. He wouldn't have thought her capable of moving as quickly as she did, much less using a jutsu in her gown, but it wouldn't have been the first time he'd underestimated Sakura.

 

Shock, disappointment, and embarrassment clash in furious waves inside him as he replayed the last few moments in his head. He groaned and rubbed both his hands over his face.

 

"Shit."

 

It takes him another long, precious moment to collect himself and give chase. She hasn't gone far-- the moment had overwhelmed her too and there were too many eyes around to not notice an abrupt and emotional exit from the garden. Kakashi races in her wake and soon finds her near where they started, by the hidden path behind the main building.

 

Her head is tilted to the night sky but her gaze is distant and far away. Parts of her gown are torn along the trailing edges. There is a fragility and vulnerability in her composure that he'd never quite seen before, and the implication that he's the reason for it makes his stomach churn.  He stops several steps behind her and warily tucks both his hands into his pockets.

 

She tilts her head slightly in acknowledgement but doesn't turn to look at him. When she speaks, her voice is distant. Sad. “Do you remember what you said to me that day? On the bridge?"

 

Kakashi nodded once, slowly, unsure of her intentions. "I remember." She could only mean the words spoken before he took over the fight-to-the-death with Sasuke. Forgive me, Sakura. I will take this burden that would have been yours to bear. It IS my role, after all.

 

Sakura chewed her lower lip for a long moment. "I always wondered… did you know I wouldn't be able to do it? That I wasn't strong enough?"

 

"No," he answered immediately, his voice thick with conviction. He takes several urgent steps towards her until he's just within arm's reach. "And no."

 

Unconsciously, Sakura stepped back. "Then did you—"

 

His hands firmly but carefully shot up and gripped her upper arms to keep her close. She turns to shoot him a look and is surprised to see a smile as kind and sad as it had been years ago gracing his face. "You've always been strong enough. But it wasn't the pain I was trying to spare you from.” His hands fall away from her and his shoulders sag a little. "To kill someone you love… the blood never washes off." His eyes raise slowly to hers and Sakura's gut wrenches painfully at the unguarded rawness of his look. “A part of you would've died with him.”

 

Him.

 

It's the first time in a long time that Kakashi has referenced him and almost immediately, he sees the invisible line pulse warningly around Sakura. Its gently glowing aura curves tightly around her body in the outline of a distinctive circular fan.

 

The Uchiha fan.

 

His heart sinks along with his gaze and he shifts his weight uncertainly between his feet. Physical desire was such a strange and unfamiliar feeling to Kakashi that he'd been easily overcome with a need to satiate it. He hadn’t anticipated the light kiss would actually make his desire for her stronger and, even now, he resisted the urge to lick his lips. He'd acted selfishly and now they would both have to pay the price.

 

Her palms cups his bare face once more and he jolts in surprise as she lifts his gaze firmly to hers. "Am I strong enough now?" she asked earnestly.

 

Sakura had never felt so excited, frustrated, and frightened all at the same time. Her lips burnt from where he'd touched her and her heart ached with a desire she'd never quite felt before. He'd come after her, yes, but he'd also compromised her.

 

The line that had been so clearly drawn up until a few weeks ago now seemed non-existent. She and Kakashi had once been close comrades-in-arms and in any other circumstance, it would've been perfectly natural for their relationship to develop as it had. Why should it matter so much that he was now Hokage and she was—

 

His hands cover hers and pull them gently from his face. "Sakura…" he whispers brokenly. "We can't."

 

She flinches and it's like a cruel slap to the face. Sakura yanked her hands away and he lets her, ignoring the way his heart rends and screams. Hurt and angry hazel-green eyes burn a chidori-sized hole into his soul.

 

"Bastard," she hissed accusingly.

 

"I'm sorry."

 

A miserable, hollow laugh cuts the air between them and makes Kakashi's skin crawl. "I'm so sick of people saying that to me."

 

Sakura's head spins and she wants to throw up. Without another word, she freed her legs by clasping a large chunk of her gown to her waist and disappeared over the back wall of the Hatake garden.

 

This time, he doesn't go after her.

 

 ———

 

Sakura doesn't remember how she got home.

 

She just remembers desperately wanting to wash the night away. The ruined gown is thrown to the furthest corner of her closet and she doesn't even bother to remove the pins from her hair before stepping into a scalding hot shower. Most of the petals fall to the shower floor but a few get tangled in her wet hair. Sakura yanked at them viciously and found the pain strangely welcoming. By the time she drags herself out of the shower and into the darkened bedroom, her skin is mildly burnt and her insides thoroughly numbed.

 

She feels beyond exhausted.

 

A chirp and the sound of large wings flapping catches her attention and she finds a dusty, unmarked package waiting for her on her windowsill.

 

She stared at it for a long moment while her heart raged that it didn't want to take any more punishment. But her heart had betrayed Sakura earlier, making her believe something she could never have, so she ignored it and brought the package onto the bed with her. There is enough light from the street to unwrap the package and find in it a single, neatly folded outfit in her favourite shade of red. The fabric is smooth and silken to her touch. Sakura raised it for inspection and her eyes widen with surprise at the undeniable Uchiha crest on the back.

 

A piece of paper floats down beside her leg containing a single phrase— Forgive me.

 

Sakura curled under the covers and buried her cries into the pillow.

 

 ———

 

It had been a while since he'd come to visit the memorial at a pre-dawn hour. Then again, it had been a while since sleep eluded Kakashi enough to warrant it.

 

The fog that surrounds him is cold and thick with moisture. A low rumble rolls from darkening clouds and a cool wind whips gently at his face. The hair on the back of his neck prickled with the electricity charging the air, signalling an oncoming storm.  "My apologies," he murmured softly to the ghosts around him. "This will be a short visit."

 

The thick fog lifted just enough for him to sense an achingly familiar presence step into his solitude. Kakashi bowed his head away from her and pinched his brow. It had been inevitable, he supposed. “You're up early."

 

His tone was low, cordial, but did nothing to mask his underlying displeasure. It had been a long and impossibly drawn out week, after all.

 

Kakashi had not spoken to Sakura since that night. He'd purposely avoided direct contact to give each other space, but if he was honest he just didn't know if he could face her again. Things had been left uncertain between them, and to make matters worse, Sakura had created a barrier around herself with the new outfit she started wearing after the party.

 

He remembered the first time he saw her after that night. He was in his office when he heard voices on the street calling the name 'Uchiha' in a not-entirely-friendly manner. Kakashi peered out his window just as Sakura was approaching the Hokage tower with documents tucked under one arm. Heads turned as she walked by.

 

Her new dress, if it could even be called that, was striking. Exquisite. Bold. It flared and whipped defiantly behind her as she briskly walked passed oglers. And like the oglers, Kakashi's eyes were drawn to the outfit's heightened emphasis on her very feminine and athletic figure. His eyes fixed especially on her exposed navel and the taught skin around it.  Sakura was no delicate flower, but beautiful and deadly like a well-balanced sword. The confidence in her stride only added to her untouchable aura.

 

Kakashi slipped out of his office, stalked the hallways until he spotted her again, and discovered the reason for the barely-concealed calls of 'Uchiha' on the streets. After her wedding, it was the first time she'd ever worn an outfit with the family crest on it.

 

It was a strong and undeniable statement.

 

It made Kakashi feel sick.

 

He knew she'd been upset with him, but was this her drawing a line between them?

 

She left a note at his office that he didn’t dare to read.

 

She waited for him outside the tower while he slipped out the office window.

 

She visited the garden one afternoon and lingered for hours while he concealed himself in the trees.

 

He spent two evenings watching her apartment, trying to figure out what he wanted to say and fearing what she had to say. His brain argued that he was being childish by avoiding her, that he was just hurting their chances of returning to something resembling friendly terms, but his heart was weak. Leading another war against a demigod seemed less intimidating.

 

His lips quirked bitterly at the sound of her sandal shuffling impatiently behind him. Kakashi tilted his head in acknowledgement but did not turn. He couldn't trust himself yet to look at her and not…

 

"Kakashi," she started cautiously. “You’re difficult when you don’t want to be found.” Sakura reached to touch his arm but he smoothly side-stepped away from her before she could. His shoulders hunched into a slouch that was more defensive than relaxed and he glanced at her warily. His brow raised briefly in surprise upon seeing her in an oversized sweater rather than the provocative dress before looking away.

 

Sakura's lips pursed with disappointment. "Please don't…" she started softly, "don't do this."

 

"Do what?" his voice rasped.

 

"Push me away." She replied and anxiously tugged at her sleeves. The choice of clothing was both practical and intentional— it was a cold morning and she had gone out with the intention of fixing things with Kakashi. She couldn’t do it if the very reason they were in this mess was staring him blatantly in the face. It had been difficult enough to keep her emotions in check all week, but now that she'd finally found him she could feel herself unravelling. "I want to apologize. I didn't mean to react that way."

 

Kakashi shook his head slowly and forced himself to meet her gaze. “I shouldn’t have compromised you to begin with.” There is sincere regret in his tone and guilt in his eyes. “I’m sorry. It was a mistake.”

 

Sakura stepped towards him. "You don't mean that."

 

"I do,” he swallowed hard. "You made your choice and I will respect it."

 

"Choice?" She frowned and closed the gap between them. "I don't understand."

 

“You ran away.” Kakashi wanted to run himself but his heart and feet remained stubbornly rooted to the spot.  "And you’re Uchiha," he admitted and closed his eyes painfully. "It’s best if we pretend it never happened."

 

Sakura’s lips trembled as she cried out a wilful, “No!” She knew he'd try to redraw the line between them, but what she needed him to understand is that her foot is already over the line… and she didn't want to take it back. Wide, green eyes plead with sad grey ones.

 

"I need you," she whispered and pressed her head into his chest to hide the tears streaming down her face. "The dress was from Sasuke. I couldn't… you know I couldn't…"

 

Ah. That made a little more sense. Sakura didn't choose to wear the Uchiha crest for herself, but for the honour and dignity of her family. Of course she would have.

 

His arms wrap around her slowly, like a soothing balm, and it holds her together. In his embrace she feels safe and she shudders with relief. “Sakura,” he murmured and the deep, reassuring tone of his voice warms and loosens the tightly wound knot she’d been carrying all week in the pit of her stomach. She allows herself to let go then; let all the anger and frustration and bitterness flow out of her, like a similar night so many moons ago. And like that night, Kakashi holds her tighter in silent comfort. He strokes her hair and murmurs apologies that sound like confessions of regret.

 

There are so many things he wishes he could take back, or have done better, but none that would have prevented him from being here with her, right now, in this moment. Kakashi's heart had never felt so full, his mind so at peace, as when he’s with her. He breathed in her scent and allowed her warmth and her softness to wash over him.

 

The first drops of rain fall on them. Light droplets at first, but by the time Kakashi takes her by the hand and leads her to the temporary cover of a nearby tree, there is a steady and rhythmic downpour on the leaves above them. Sakura wipes at her face with her sleeve but it makes no difference; the tears and rain stain her cheeks equally now.

 

He brushed wet strands from her forehead and let his hand cup her face lightly for a moment before falling away. "You've always been stronger than you give yourself credit for."

 

Sakura huffed a laugh of disbelief. "Even now?"

 

"Especially now," he answered determinedly. "It's your strength of will that found me." Kakashi's eyes widened with sudden revelation and he stared at her like he'd just seen something he hadn't noticed before. "Forgive me," he said gently. "For being the weak one all this time."

 

Her hand slid into his and squeezed. "Kindness is also a sign of strength, not weakness." She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed the knuckles softly. "And you're the kindest man I know."

 

He lowered his head to touch his forehead to hers. "But still a man," he whispered, his hand slipping to grab her wrist and to squeeze warningly. "And not without desire."

 

Sakura tensed and her stomach twisted uneasily, but she would not be frightened. Not this time. She lifted her chin and emerald eyes gleamed daringly. "So do something about it."

 

It takes a second for Kakashi to fully comprehend her dare. His face darkens with an intensity that makes her pulse quicken and insides tighten in a not entirely unpleasant way. She feels her ears burn red as stormy grey eyes cloud under a hooded gaze.

 

"Tch."

 

When his control breaks, she gets the quickest glimpse of the man lurking beneath the mask of seeming serenity. And he frightens her. Not because he's rage and violence, but because he’s inescapable desire and burning passion, drawing her in like a moth to a flame.

 

He shoved her back roughly against the tree and pinned her there with his body. His jaw clenched. He towered over her, eyes so dark and filled with anguish. "Is this what you want?" he demanded coolly and with a dangerous edge to his tone. "To be destroyed!?"

 

A flash of lightning illuminates his masked face and for one fearsome moment, both his eyes blaze red. The thunderclap comes a moment later, so close the ground shakes beneath them. It's enough to break the moment and Kakashi pushes off and turns away. He runs both hands roughly through his hair as Sakura regains her footing and reigns in her wildly beating heart.

 

"Tell me," he started, sounding ragged and like he's about to shatter, "what it is you expect from me."

 

She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. "Nothing," she whispered sadly. "I expect nothing."

 

He turned to her then, his expression confused and heartbreaking.

 

"But I want whatever you can give."

 

The rain fell harder, angrier, like it wanted to drown the world. They stood, completely drenched, and stared at each other.

 

"You don't know what you're asking," he said cautiously.

 

She stepped towards him. "I know what's at stake. You think you're the only one who takes stupid bets on their life?"

 

Kakashi blinked, disbelieving what he heard for a moment, and chuckled. Sakura slipped her arms around his waist and pulled herself flush against him once more. "I need you," she repeated. "That's all I know."

 

He lifts her face up to his gently. They are so close. His masked lips graze hers and when her lips part instinctively in response, he removes the final distance between them and kisses her through the mask. Tentatively, softly at first. He pulls back just long enough to catch her reaction, green eyes dulled and hooded, and Kakashi knows he is lost. One hand slips behind her head and the other to the edge of his mask. The fabric falls down to his chin and his bare lips press against hers again, harder, hungrier.

 

She responds immediately, her hands in his hair, pulling him down to her with a desperation that matched his hunger. His arm shot back up against the tree trunk to prevent them both from toppling over.

 

“Sakura…” he breathed huskily against her lips when they parted. His hand runs possessively down the length of her arm with unspoken intent.

 

Wordlessly, she alights to the branches and moves swiftly up the tree and onto the buildings, staying under the rooftops for cover where she can. Kakashi pulls his mask back on and follows, pulling up beside her when he realizes where they’re heading. He spares a glance backwards at the shadows tailing him and discretely signals them to fall back. There is a brief moment of hesitation before the ANBU guards comply and scatter.

 

"Sarada is with my parents," explained Sakura as Kakashi joined her on the balcony and slipped into her apartment. "I told them I had errands today."

 

She manages to close the balcony curtains before he grabs her by the arm and spins her around, tearing his mask away and capturing her mouth again with his. He swallows her cry of surprise as he manoeuvres her deeper into the darkened apartment. Lightning illuminates the room and the accompanying thunder is loud and fierce, breaking the moment between them once more. Kakashi regains enough self-control to pull himself back and look away guiltily. He desired her, but he was not the type to push himself onto others.

 

"Come," Sakura smiled reassuringly, taking his hand in hers, and lead him to the bedroom.

 

 ———

 

 

Chapter Text

There are no guarantees in love.

 

This lesson Kakashi knows from hard experience. He had nothing to offer Sakura, no place in her life that wouldn’t risk everything else they’d fought so long and hard to achieve. He couldn’t even promise they wouldn’t do anything they’d regret.

 

More than anything, he didn’t want to be her regret. But he also didn’t want to stop. Not when they’d finally gotten this far. For the first time in his life he was prepared to give everything that he was to one person, consequences be damned.

 

He closed the bedroom door quietly behind them and pulled his damp jounin shirt up and over his head.

 

Love isn’t always the way it’s meant to be.

 

This lesson Sakura thought she'd learnt, but as she loses herself in a pair of grey eyes as dark and stormy as the weather outside her window, she realizes she's only scratched the surface of understanding it. She offered a large dry towel in exchange for Kakashi's drenched shirt and glanced hesitantly at his equally soaked undershirt, pants and sandals. She cleared her throat. "You should probably take it all off."

 

She turned before she could see his reaction and ducked into the adjoining bathroom to throw the wet shirt into the dryer. Sakura quickly slipped out of her own soaked clothing, leaving on just her undergarments, and included them in the machine. She was slipping on a bathrobe when more wet clothing flew through the room straight into the open dryer.

 

Her head snapped back in surprise as Kakashi stared at her from the doorway, completely naked except for the towel around his waist. There is amusement in his eyes but his lips are pursed and jaw clenched anxiously. Wordlessly, he disappeared from the doorway and back into the bedroom. 

 

Sakura chewed on her lower lip and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She wiped a robe sleeve over her damp and flushed face and touched red, slightly swollen lips that still tingled from his stolen kiss. The intensity of it had literally shocked her, as if lightning had coursed through his veins and into her through their lips.

 

The low rumble of thunder makes the floor under her bare feet vibrate and her pulse raced with anticipation. One of the first lessons ever taught to kunoichis is to trust your intuition. Though her mind recited a litany of reasons why this was a very bad idea, every fibre of her being screamed how right it felt. So, not for the first time in her life, her mind lost to her heart. Never in a million years would she have dared to believe they'd wind up here, together, naked and alone. She smiled softly but confidently at her reflection. Sakura shimmied her remaining undergarments off from beneath her robe, turned the dryer on and, with a deep breath, stepped back into the bedroom.

 

Kakashi sat on the edge of her bed, waiting. In the little light that filters into the room, his body language is relaxed, unguarded. He stared at her longingly and gave her a heartbreakingly beautiful smile. "We don't have to… do anything if you don't want to."

 

She moved towards him slowly, green eyes wide and honest.  "But I do want to."

 

Relief and joy visibly wash over his face. “The choice will always be yours,” he murmured. His  hands find her hips and ease her gently into his lap so that she's kneeling on the bed facing him. Hands roam immediately over her exposed legs splayed on either side of him, sliding up the robe to caress her upper thighs. He breathes out a sigh of pleasure and awe— he, too, never imagined such intimacy between them could be possible.

 

This close, Sakura can see clearly the silver scar across his chest, the faded cuts on his arms and shoulders. She traced the longest scar from his left breast down to his right ribcage and his eyes flutter closed at her touch. He inhaled sharply and her heart aches for the painful memory it bears; for all the pain he wears on his skin. She lowered her head and lightly kissed the top of the scar on his chest. She kissed one on his collarbone, then one on his shoulder, then another in the crook of his neck. She brushed her thumb over a knick just behind his ear and he shivered involuntarily.

 

There are so many, many scars, each a tally of a time Kakashi survived or endured.  Her lips press softly on the lowest point of the scar down his left eye and he tilts his head enough to capture her lips with his. She gasps a soft cry but raises both hands to cup his face a moment later, holding him to her as she deepens the kiss and fills it with longing.

 

He returns her kiss. Gently at first, but as her fingers tuck into the towel around his waist, pulling herself flush against him, his own fingers sliding under her robe, loosening it enough to free her shoulders and realize she'd taken her undergarments off, the kiss becomes something needier. Hungrier.

 

Kakashi's head drops to a bared shoulder and trails feather-light kisses slowly down to a partially exposed breast. His hair tickles as he moves and Sakura giggles and squirms. It is such a light and innocent sound that, for one dizzying moment, she can believe they're just two normal and inconsequential people enjoying a rainy morning behind closed doors. Kakashi's hands tighten on her waist as he rolls her gently onto the bed and straddles her. The demure smile Sakura wears as she pulls loose the small strip of fabric holding her robe together makes Kakashi momentarily forget to breathe. His fingers caress the delicate curve of her jaw and he's overcome once again with awe and disbelief that she is here, with him, by choice.

 

 "Are you—?" Kakashi licked his lips like a man parched for water as his fingers tentatively skimmed the edge of the robe concealing her breasts. The sound of her short, quickening breaths makes the blood in his veins boil with a hot and very primal need. "I can't promise this won't—" Her finger on his lips gently silence him.

 

"Then don't," she replied simply. "Let's just have what we can, while we can."

 

A half groan, half growl of approval escapes Kakashi's throat as her fingers skim slyly down the firm stretch of his stomach and undo the towel around his waist. He briefly gets up to let the towel fall away and repositions himself between her legs. A small smirk twists the corner of his lips as Sakura admires the sight of him and his growing length with shameless approval.

 

He stretched and lowered himself down on top of her, smothering a moan from her lips with a fierce and passionate kiss.  He grinds his hips into her, letting her feel the hunger growing within him every second she lies with him like this.  Supporting his weight with one hand, Kakashi shifts over her and peels away the remaining fabric between them.

 

Sakura feels herself crushed, briefly, under his weight and the explosion of heat from the friction of skin against skin elicits a louder, needier moan from both their lips. Kakashi's teeth lightly grazed her lips as he reluctantly broke their kiss and pushed himself off her enough to drink in the full sight of her laid bare on the bed.

 

"Beautiful," he whispered as his fingers touched her heaving breasts, ran down the curves of her side, and back up again along her taut abdomen. Sakura hummed with pleasure as her body moved languidly to his touch. Grey eyes roamed with open appreciation over the bountiful kingdom she offered.  He caressed the curves of both breasts again, touching her nipples reverently, worshipping not claiming.

 

She tried to wrap her legs around his waist, eager with want, but he held them firmly apart and shook his head. "Not yet," he commanded huskily and the rasp in his voce makes her quiver.

 

Kakashi plants a gentle kiss on her temple, silently requesting patience as he explored her body in deliberate but unhurried caresses. He marvelled at soft curves over sleek muscles. He massaged, stroked, and kneaded; expressing in his touch the beauty and the power he beheld in her. His lips join in the adoration of her, trailing reverent kisses down her body, until she is butter in his hands and purring with agonising delight. Until Kakashi is certain she feels the affection he believes she deserves and understands just how breathtaking she is to him.

 

Sakura swallows back a cry as she is overwhelmed with the intensity of feelings he bestows upon her. Her vision momentarily blurs with tears; a few sliding traitorously down her cheek.  The way he touches her, looks at her, brushes his lips lovingly on her skin… it is such a strange and unfamiliar feeling, to be so thoroughly worshipped and adored without any physical penetration.

 

Kakashi held her face gently, brushed the tears away with his thumbs and kissed the corner of her eyes. A pathetic whimper escapes her throat and suddenly Sakura is frightened. She can't breathe. Panic seeps in as she realises she’s never been so vulnerable and unguarded in her life.

 

He felt the change in her instantly and froze. “Sakura…" his voice is thick and gravelly as he pulls himself up just enough to look at her with concern.

 

And it is enough for Sakura to remember to breathe.

 

He was looking at her the way she needed to be looked at in that moment, like the storm could drown the whole world outside and he wouldn't even blink. Sakura's heart thumped hard against her chest as she allowed herself to fall into grey pools of steady, unwavering affection. And she understands, in that one look, that her heart is safe with him. That even if she couldn't give him all of it, he would destroy himself rather than allow it to be torn apart.

 

She'd asked him for whatever he could give and he was going to give her everything.

 

Fresh tears flow down her cheeks… this time, of joy and unrepayable gratitude. Sakura cupped his face and pulled it down to hers.  “Kiss me.”

 

Kakashi willingly obliged, his lips descending on hers, savouring her taste. Everything he does, it seems, is languid and frustratingly unhurried. Sakura’s fingers slide across his back, pulling more of him down onto her, and her hips arch against him impatiently to make him feel her wet and aching desire. He chuckled into her mouth and smiled against her lips. “I’m an old man, Sakura. I won’t be rushed.”

 

She rolled her hips defiantly against him and hummed with pleasure when she felt an instant reaction between his legs. “Oh?” she teased and playfully nipped at his lower lip.

 

Kakashi’s eyes rolled as he bit back a groan. It’s a battle he’s doomed to lose. Blood rushed through his veins, feeding the fire in his loins. There may be time later, he thinks, for a longer and more thorough exploration of her body. He resumed kissing her, deeply and passionately, as he parted her legs and entered her sex with one finger, then another, carefully stretching and stimulating her, massaging the sensitive mounds inside. Silver-white brows raised in fascination as her whole body arched and quivered in response.

 

Sakura's fingers dug warningly into his shoulder as emerald-dark eyes looked at him fiercely, longingly, for something more.

 

Even in times of peace, the title of Hokage felt like that of a man on borrowed time. Kakashi could never— and would never —deny her anything, and it was certain to be his downfall. As he pulled his fingers out and pressed himself against her wetness, he knew with perfect clarity how his fate would be sealed.

 

Grey eyes locked with green as he entered her, pushing his full length into her in one smooth thrust. Sakura's mouth opened in surprise and he captured it with his before a moan could escape her, emitting a low and possessive growl of his own. Their tongues met in a warm, hungry, terrifying dance. He was inside her, stretching her, filling her with incredible heat and pleasure. She was tight but she was wet, she was eager, and she wanted him.

 

The extraordinary control and gentle power he exerts in his movements makes Sakura's heart beat wildly in her chest. She hissed his name and pressed her body wantonly against his. Her hands slid around his waist and pulled him tighter against her with each thrust, intentions clear. He pressed his forehead into her shoulder and groaned, fingers digging into the small of her back as he felt his control surrender to her demand and her quickly approaching climax. In one final, enthusiastic thrust, a torrent of raw pleasure overcomes Sakura and she cries out in ecstasy. She arched against Kakashi and squeezed so hard he came undone with her.

 

Outside, the storm receded to a light but steady rain fall. He collapsed beside her and laid an arm over his eyes.

 

He was completely wrecked.

 

To Sakura, he looked impossibly beautiful.

 

“You’ll be the death of me,”  he murmured as he skirted the edge of consciousness, and smiled as if he was the happiest man in the world.

 

 ———

 

Sakura awoke to late morning sunshine leaking through the drawn curtains of her apartment window. She found herself lying across from Kakashi in a tangle of warm limbs and sheets, hands loosely intertwined between them.

 

She freed one of her hands gently to brush silver-white strands from his face, and his hand moved immediately to rest beside his mouth, subconsciously masking him from the morning light.  She studied him as he slept, his breath coming slow and even. She noted the gentle curves his long fingers relaxed into beside his face and lightly traced the scars that ran down to his wrist, evidence of lifelong use of chakra and steal. Scars of skin broken and healed over and over again. The hands of a hardened and highly-skilled shinobi, salted by the earth and worn into smooth leather. Warm pleasure ripples through Sakura's body with the memory of these hands on her skin.

 

She has similar scarring on her hands, though finer thanks to her chakra control and dutiful use of lotion. In the honest light of the late morning sunshine, she can see the fine lines around his eyes and mouth. She looks for a long time, memorising a face that knew humour despite painful looking scars.

 

One heavy-lidded eye opened for a moment, saw her watching him, and closed again. Kakashi’s lips quirked in a small smile. “Not a dream, then.”

 

She leaned forward and kissed him softly on the temple. "No."

 

His hand slid around her waist and pulled her against him. "You missed," he said and kissed her breathlessly.

 

Sakura giggled and pushed gently against his chest to break the kiss. "We should shower."

 

"Together?" Silver-white brows rose with interest.

 

"If that's what it takes." She punched his shoulder playfully and began to ease herself out of the bed.

 

Hands hooked around her naked torso and rolled her stubbornly back onto the bed. But Sakura had anticipated some defiance, and with a light display of strength, flipped their position on the bed and straddled him. She laughed in triumph and delight at the surprise on Kakashi's face. She leaned down and planted a kiss once more on his temple before hopping off the bed.

 

"You can join me," she teased as she swayed her hips seductively towards the bathroom door. "Or you can watch. The choice will always be yours."

 

His words tauntingly thrown back at him gets the effect she desired. Sakura shrieked with joy as Kakashi jumped out of bed with lightning speed and scooped her eagerly into his arms.

 

 ———

 

She watched him with Sarada and the smile on her face began to hurt.

 

Kakashi is kind and patient in their play, allowing her to lead their activities and give him instructions in short, half-developed sentences. She watched as her little fan's often-frustrated face brightened with joy at Kakashi correctly understanding her desire for him to follow her up the slide. The toddler went down with practiced ease and immediately turned to coax the Rokudaime, famed shinobi of a thousand jutsus, to do the same.  Sakura burst into laughter as Kakashi feigned fear and uncertainty at the top of the slide, asked Sarada if she was sure it was fun, and slid down with both hands over his eyes. Her heart swelled a little more as Sarada squealed happily and leapt into his lap, excitedly babbling all the positive phrases she knew like, "Wow!" and "You did it!" and "Success!"

 

Kakashi looked up to meet Sakura's gaze, felt the unspoken affection radiating from her, and knew his heart had found its home.

 

 ———

 

"Tell me," she whispered in the hushed darkness of her bedroom. "Tell me… what this is."

 

His fingers traced a feather-light touch along her temple. He allowed himself to be entranced by the ethereal glow the filtered moonlight gives her. Her green eyes are wide, frightened, but also bright with hope as she waited for his answer. Kakashi's gaze fixes on the pink halo splayed around her head as everything falls away and all but one word remained in his mind and on his lips.

 

"Love."

 

A single tear escapes from Sakura's eye, down her cheek and he kisses it away. His lips touch hers and she can taste its saltiness. "Tell me," she started again, swallowing, her voice shaky as her fingers curled desperately into his skin. "Tell me what this will be tomorrow."

 

Grey eyes looked down at her, warm and affectionate, for a long time. Kakashi ran his fingers through her hair slowly, calmly, spreading them further over the bed. There was and will always ever be one answer.

 

"Whatever you wish it to be."

 

 ———

 

Shikamaru pinched his temple and sighed. This wasn’t at all how he wanted to start the week.

 

“What a pain,” he muttered as he stood up, stretched lazily, and picked the report up from his table. He walked down the hall and knocked on the Rokudaime’s office.

 

“Enter!”

 

Shikamaru raised both brows in surprise and darted a look at the clock on the wall. It wasn’t even 9 yet. He hadn’t really expected a reply and had already been in the process of turning around to make his way down to Intelligence.

 

“Shikamaru!” An ever-boisterous blonde chirped happily as he let himself into the office. “What brings you to the Hokage office so early?”

 

“I’m looking for the Hokage,” he replied plainly. “Are you…?”

 

“Acting Hokage for the day!” Naruto exclaimed with a signature Uzumaki grin. “Kakashi-sensei sent a ninken last night asking if I could fill in. Caught a flu over the weekend or something.”

 

Shikamaru scratched his chin suspiciously. Kakashi being too sick to come to work without also being mortally injured was unprecedented, to say the least. “Does Sakura know?”

 

Naruto laughed. “Who do you think made him send the message? Medic's orders. The idiot was probably caught standing outside in the storm and now he's been nagged and threatened into staying in bed until he's recovered.”

 

The genius strategist chewed on this additional information for a moment. He opened his mouth to make a gossip-related comment, but remembered who was in the room with him and decided against it. His interest was piqued, but not enough to risk being dragged into the repercussions. Instead he waved the paper in his hand in Naruto’s direction. “You don’t happen to know what’s going on in Iron, do you?”

 

“Nope,” Naruto admitted and folded his arms over the table. “Want to fill me in?”

 

Not really. “We’re missing a shipment of steel from them. A pretty big one that should have arrived a week ago and they’re demanding payment.”

 

“Do we know for sure they sent it?”

 

“No,” Shikamaru admitted. “But we did receive the first two.”

 

“Do you suspect foul play?”

 

“It could be some kind of play from the samurais, but no, probably not foul. Not intentionally, anyway.”

 

“How long can you hold off the payment?”

 

“A couple weeks, probably, assuming the next shipment arrives intact.”

 

Naruto nodded, already penning a note. “I’ll get our guy to look into it. He's actually nearby. In the meantime you should probably arrange light security to escort the next shipments across our borders.”

 

Shikamaru nodded in agreement and turned to leave. “Do you think the Rokudaime will be back tomorrow?”

 

Naruto grinned. “Probably depends on how much grief Sakura gives him.”

 

 Shikamaru bit his lip.

 

He was fairly certain grief wasn’t the accurate word.

 

 ———

 

Chapter Text

Her eyes widened in horror and disbelief as Kakashi kneeled and extended his arms towards her. "I will NOT," she replied adamantly before he could even ask.

 

"Sakura." His tone is stern as he gestured her closer with his hands, but she crossed her arms and shook her head stubbornly.

 

"No." Her nose crinkled as she stuck a tongue out at him. "I'm not a child anymore."

 

"Could've fooled me," he mumbled and it immediately earned him a knock in the ear. The temporary ringing was worth it though, because it meant she'd stepped within arms' reach. Kakashi caught her in his arms before she could safely pull back and lifted her onto his back. A shriek of surprise turned into laughter as he stood up with his prize and started immediately down the garden path. He straddled her thighs securely around his waist and folded his hands under her buttocks for support. Kakashi gave each cheek a playful squeeze and earned another, harder knock in the ear.

 

"Pervert."

 

"Only for you," he grinned, a playful twinkle in his eyes as he craned his head back to look at her. A soft blush tinted her cheeks as she settled her head on his shoulder. She pulled herself flush against his back, soaking in his warmth, and sighed in resignation. She was barely a teenager the last time Kakashi had carried her on his back. The nostalgia was not unwelcome.

 

All around them, trees were turning brilliant shades of gold and crimson.  A chill in the air prickled Sakura's skin. She shivered with the passing of a cool breeze and pressed herself tighter against Kakashi's back.

 

She felt a temporary weightlessness as the Rokudaime grunted and took flight to the trees. "You probably should've brought a cloak."

 

"I thought it might get in the way," Sakura murmured and buried her face in his silver-white mane to protect against the whip of stray leaves and branches. She pressed a soft kiss to the ticklish spot she knew was just above his hairline on the back of his neck, and was delighted to feel him twitch and tighten his grip on her thighs.

 

"I will drop you."

 

"You won’t," she laughed and pressed another happy kiss to his masked cheek, nuzzling him affectionately. 

 

They landed a few seconds later in a familiar open field, just a few steps from a small building. Sakura stared at the centre of the field and her pulse quickened at the memory of the first kiss he stole that night. Had it only just happened two weeks ago?

 

Kakashi let her down onto her feet, took her hand in his, and walked purposely to the screen doors of the building. He pushed the screen open with his foot and one free hand, slowly revealing wide tatami mats, simple furnishing and amenities inside. It was a fully functional guest hut.

 

He slipped out of his sandals and went immediately to the small stove inside. Sakura went to sit beside him, clutching a hand to her heart as purple sparks erupted instantly into heat and flames. "Thank you."

 

Kakashi watched her warm herself by the fire. After a few moments, he got up and retrieved a blanket from the nearby futon. He wrapped it around her and settled more comfortably beside her. He removed his mask. "Better?"

 

Sakura leaned into him and rested her head on his shoulder, sighing happily. "Yes."

 

One glorious, mind-blowing week had passed filled with laughter, self-discovery, and deliciously forbidden pleasure. Being with Kakashi was shattering everything she thought she knew about physical intimacy and herself.

 

Being with Kakashi left her breathless and wanting more.

 

But being with Kakashi was more than just amazing sex. It was stolen moments like this, curled up with him by a warm fire, being cared for without having to ask for the extra attention. It's how effortlessly his fingers intertwine with hers, stretching and curling in lazy but playful caresses as they enjoy a comforting silence. It's how casually he brushes his lips on the back of her hand, gaze still on the fire, as if bestowing small affections is as inherent to him as breathing.

 

Several contented minutes pass before Sakura wills herself up to a standing position and turns her attention back to the field. As tempted as she is to just spend the rest of their time here, in this room with the screen doors closed, her curiosity and desire to do what they had officially reserved this time to do wins out in the end. Kakashi stands beside her and tucks his hands into his pockets.

 

"Ready?"

 

Sakura nods, tightens the blanket around her and gives him a confident smile. "Let's begin."

 

She picks a slightly elevated spot on the grassy field and sits on the blanket with her legs casually folded. Molding chakra into a small, tightly-packed sphere between the palms of her hands is child's play. It's like being asked to wrap yarn into a ball— a little tricky at the start, but a cinch once it gets rolling. A small, glowing orb of energy soon pulses softly in her hands.

 

The rasengan is the highest known form of shape transformation. It doesn't surprise Kakashi that his former student would, after a few minutes of him explaining and demonstrating the jutsu back in his office, achieve on her first try what had taken her former teammates days and weeks to achieve (and longer still to master). He scratched his head in quiet amazement and wondered if there was really anything left that he could teach her.

 

He sits behind her and his hands slide down the length of her outstretched arms slowly, fingers caressing the curves of her muscle before settling lightly over her hands. The heat of his body envelopes her as he leans forward and brushes the lightest of kisses on her earlobe. "Ready."

 

Sakura chewed on her lower lip, tried not to be too distracted by his half-conscious gestures of affection, and nodded. Slowly, she began to alter the properties of the chakra in her hand with her natural earth element.

 

"Contain it as densely as you can safely make it," he instructed softly, moving his hands into supporting positions over her rasengan as it gradually transformed into a mineral-heavy ball of elemental energy.

 

After a minute, Sakura beamed with the thrill of having created something new. "Do you still trust me?"

 

Kakashi pressed another small kiss to her cheek and raised both brows at the ball of energy in their hands. "With my life."

 

Thin strands of electricity emanate from his fingers and wrap around the earth-based energy ball. It momentarily glows purple as it's absorbed. The ball swells with the additional element, chakra energy pushing and lashing out— but together Sakura and Kakashi manage to hold it together and keep it from exploding a new crater within the garden.

 

"Now."

 

Their chakra flow stops simultaneously. The nature of the ball changes immediately, blackening as it falls into Sakura's waiting hands. Kakashi's own hands move instinctively down to her waist, ready to whisk her away as fast as he can should the new element they created prove to be unstable. The ball cracks and splinters with a jagged but shiny, silvery substance. It breaks into two halves as the substance sprouts out and stabilizes in crystal-like formations.

 

Small and safely contained, just as they had planned. 

 

"Is it some kind of metal?" Sakura asked hopefully.

 

Kakashi picked up the larger piece and bounced it experimentally in his hand. "Looks like it. But it's much lighter than I would expect," he observed and pocketed the piece. "I'll have it analyzed."

 

She turned to face him and threw her hands up victoriously. "Earth and lightning transformation without a bloodline limit!"

 

"Without a known bloodline limit," Kakashi corrected, but Sakura's joy is infectious and he laughs. She had been the one to propose combining her perfect chakra control with his mastery of all nature and shape transformations. Her theory was that their combined natural skills could overcome the required bloodline limit needed to merge elements.

 

That they would be able to modify and create a new element-based jutsu together had never occurred to him before. But then again, there were a lot of things he never thought possible a week ago. He lifted her into his lap and kissed her. "Congratulations. It went perfect."

 

She giggled and returned the kiss eagerly, placing both hands on his chest and pushing him to lie back on the grass. Kakashi offered no resistance, tucking one arm behind his head and wrapping the other loosely around her waist.  The remaining element rolled idly to their side. Looking down at his contented face, Sakura smiled. “Only because I have a great research partner.”

 

"Is that what I am?" he yawned and casually stroked the small of her back. It was so incredibly relaxing, lying in the grass with her sprawled on top of him. A smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “To be honest, I was sure we’d be doing a different kind of hands-on experiment by now.”

 

Sakura laughed warmly and rested her head on his chest. The sound of his gently beating heart and the solid warmth of his body is soothing. “Is that why you said yes so quickly?”

 

“I promised I'd make time for you if you asked,” he breathed softly, moving his hand up from her back to run his fingers through her hair. “And you did.” It seemed a lifetime ago when he first made that promise to her. He lifted his head just enough to press his lips to her hair. "Your idea was brilliant."

 

She curled tightly against him and let out another contented sigh. A week is nowhere near enough time for her to process the torrent of emotions being with him evokes in her. But in small moments like this, safely and comfortably tucked in his arm, she is wholly at peace.

 

He shifts a little beneath her and when she rises enough to look at him, soft grey eyes regard her for a long moment. The admiration in his gaze is steady and unwavering. "You are brilliant."

 

Sakura feels her cheeks flush and she looks away. She knows he genuinely believes in her intelligence and skill, but the depth of his feelings and how freely he shows it still overwhelms her sometimes. "Thank you," she replied quietly. "It means a lot coming from Hokage-sama."

 

She adds the honorific at the last minute because she's still unaccustomed to such heartfelt compliments, hoping to pass it as a playful tease. But she knows she failed when she feels his hand fall away from her. Kakashi pushes himself up to a sitting position and lifts her with him.

 

Sakura grits her teeth, feeling wretched for having ruined the moment with her awkwardness, and folds her knees into her chest.

 

"Sakura," his lips brushed her diamond-marked brow apologetically. "I'm sorry. I made you uncomfortable. I don't have much experience in... this."

 

She half-chokes on a chuckle that catches in her throat and shakes her head. "Neither do I," she confesses honestly. Kakashi's expression visibly softens and she knows he understands her unspoken meaning.

 

They are both still learning what it means to be loved. Truly. And to feel worthy of it.

 

A small flicker of light catches the corner of his eye and his gaze turns to the distant outpost on the far side of the garden. It flickers again; the twenty-minute signal. "I should walk you back to the clinic," he sighed wistfully.

 

Sakura reached over and intertwined her fingers in his. She brought his hand to her lips and brushed her own apologetic kiss on his knuckles. There just isn't enough time in their days to be together without raising more than just curious brows and idle gossip. She turned his hand palm-side up and held it flush against her cheek. "Just a little while longer?"

 

Kakashi wraps himself around her and lowers his head to hers. He kisses her softly, tenderly, knowing that these stolen moments will not make the inevitable future any easier, and holds her tight.

 

"As long as we can."

 

———

 

Shikamaru breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the casual stride of the Hokage coming down the hall. There were several key items on the table that needed decisions to be made and he hadn't been keen on the prospect of making them himself this afternoon. He nodded at the older man as he entered the office and pushed the files across the table to where Kakashi would sit.

 

"How'd the transformation go?" asked Shikamaru. He didn't really care, but he was curious if his seemingly casual knowledge of it would garner a reaction from the Rokudaime.

 

It does. Silver-white brows rose ever-so-slightly. "Successfully." Kakashi fished the piece of earth-lightning infusion from his pocket and rolled it across the table to his second-in-command. "Could you drop it off at the lab for analysis?"

 

Genuine surprise crossed the younger man's face. In all honesty, he didn't think any actual experiment had been conducted, let alone with solid results. Combining elements and chakras without a known bloodline limit had been tried before with disappointing or disastrous outcomes. He picked up the densely-contained specimen curiously.

 

He'd underestimated Sakura.

 

Kakashi took advantage of the few seconds Shikamaru was distracted to flip through the files in front of him. He signed off on the first two request forms before skimming through a lengthy mission report. His brow furrowed. "Who do we have in Iron?"

 

"Reconnaissance squad two and Hawk."

 

"Deep cover?"

 

"Tried. Samurai are highly suspicious of newcomers, especially when recruiting."

 

Worry lines deepened on the Rokudaime's brow. "Casualties?"

 

"None, fortunately," Shikamaru sighed and pinched his brow. "But we've had to resort to second-hand surveillance. Hence the boringly detailed report."

 

"Do you agree that a faction likely has our missing steel shipment?"

 

"It would explain why we can't find any clues on this side of the border."

 

"Next, I hope you're going to tell me the civil unrest has nothing to do with our deal with them."

 

Shikamaru leaned forward and pulled a folded piece of paper from the bottom of the file. Kakashi's jaw tightens as the handwritten note unfolds before him.

 

Rebels targeting the core of Konoha's strength. Stay alert.

 

———

 

Being with Kakashi is simultaneously new and familiar. It is both a source of comfort and fear.

 

She knows, when his expression settles into something apologetic immediately after arriving at her door, that he's heard from Sasuke. Her heart seizes and her blood momentarily runs cold. The reaction is familiar but for entirely new reasons.

 

There is urgency in the way he pulls her into his embrace; a protectiveness in the way he cradles her head in his hand. And Sakura relaxes a little, because he would never risk such a display of affection if there was the remotest chance they could be discovered.

 

Still, the way his heart beats hard against his chest has her worried. Sakura cups his face in her hands and makes him look at her. His face looks drawn and tired. "Kakashi."

 

"There will be an attempt to weaken Konoha,” he explained simply. “We… I need to be more careful." You are too close to not also be in danger. The words go unspoken but weigh heavily between them. Even in times of peace, the title of Kage is a dangerous one.

 

He pushes away gently. It's the first time she's ever seen doubt and fear in his eyes.

 

"We've faced plenty of threats before," Sakura started, face hardening with resolve. "What makes this so different?"

 

"We're different." Kakashi bowed his head to hers, his brow marked with worry. "There's more at stake."

 

She shook her head and sighed, suddenly, as if she was dealing with a child. “I understand,” she said simply. "But having something to protect isn’t weakness. It’s the reason we fight. You taught me that.”

 

"Sakura, I—"

 

She pressed a finger to his masked lips and silenced him with a look. The will of Fire burned strong and steady in her eyes. “You lead, I support, and we never give up. Remember? That’s what we do.”

 

You are so much more than support, he thinks, but doesn’t say it out loud. He doesn’t need to. She knows. “Ah.”

 

The smile she graces him with is warm with acceptance. Sakura takes his hand and leads him further into the apartment. A tan-coloured ninken with floppy ears pads quietly out of Sarada’s bedroom and licks his hand in greeting.

 

“Guruko,” Kakashi pats the dog on the head and its tail wags happily. It follows them into the living room, does a quick scan, and returns to the child’s bed side.

 

“Thank you for letting him stay at nights,” Sakura said as she helped him out of his jounin clothes. “He’s been very good at comforting Sarada.” Recently, the toddler had been waking from nightmares and teething pain.

 

"My reasons weren't entirely unselfish," he murmured as he gently guided her to sit on the sofa. He kneeled before her and placed her hands on the edges of his mask.

 

She giggled, brushed her thumbs over the fabric, felt the wry twist of a smile concealed beneath it, and curled her fingers under the edges. Sakura closed her eyes as she carefully folded down his mask and pressed her lips to his. His mouth opened to hers and he slowly surrendered his doubt and his fears. She parted her legs and pulled him closer, deepening the kiss. She tried to fill him with the courage and strength he inspired in her. A soft moan escaped her lips as his hands slipped boldly under her shirt and caressed the bare skin of her back. His touch is hot as he presses into the curve of her back and carefully maneuvered her into a lying position.

 

When they broke for air, a spark of laughter returned to his eyes. He traced his fingers down the curve of her cheek and jawline; pressed a grateful kiss to her brow. And the way she looks up at him then, face flush with pleasure and glowing with joy, takes Kakashi's breath away.

 

She is everything he'd never dared hoped or dreamed to have, much less deserve. "I—" his throat tightens and jaw clenches shut. Fingers curl into a fist at his side.

 

Sakura cups his face once more and draws him into a fierce, passionate kiss. One hand slides to the back of his head and tangles possessively in the mop of silver-white hair. "Stay with me."

 

"As long as we can," he promises.

 

Soft caresses and tender kisses fill the distance between the living room and the bed. A trail of discarded clothing marks their path.  A mixture of light from the moon and the streetlamps spill across their skin as they fall in a tangle of limbs and desire on the sheets.

 

Sakura loves the way he feels when he's under her, all hard and taught muscles straining for her touch. She takes her time mapping the chiselled contours of his abdomen with her fingers and plants kisses down each of his more distinctive scars. A grunt and sharp exhale of breath escapes his lips as she scratches down the V of his hips. His eyes darken with intent but he lays still, waiting for her. It's that power she has over him, that he yields to so willingly, that makes her drunk with desire.

 

When she takes him inside her and he pulls her down his full length, the instant pleasure that slams through her makes her head snap heavenwards and mouth open to scream. But she holds it back, letting out only a muffled moan, as her whole body quivers with the heat throbbing inside her.

 

It is pure ecstasy. The forbidden heightening the thrill. And for the briefest of moments, Sakura's heart soars.

 

Kakashi pushes himself up to a sitting position and captures her lips hungrily with his. A deep growl emanates from his throat when he presses the small of her back and she arches willingly. Her breasts press against him as her hips gyrate in a seductive, achingly slow pace. She rides him to dizzying new heights of pleasure.

 

But he can no longer stand it.

 

"Sakura," his voice is thick and gravelly as he flips their position and drives her deep into the sheets. She gives a delicious moan and opens herself further for him.

 

"Yes," she breathed huskily as he thrusts into her with increased urgency. "Yes." She reached up with both hands and dragged him down on top of her, crushing his lips against hers and only holding tighter as she felt her climax. Her legs clenched around him. Kakashi groaned and released under the immense pressure, slipping his arm under her back to pull her into a dark and burning-hot embrace.

 

He buries his face into her neck and the temptation to mark her, to claim her as his is overwhelming. He half-growls, half-screams his frustration, and turns his head away.

 

Not his.

 

No.

 

———

 

Sakura awoke to the feel of sunshine on her back. She drowsily reached over to the warm body next to her and pulled herself flush against him in the cooler, shadowed part of the bed. An inelegant grunt escaped her lips as a hand ruffled her hair lightly. She tried to block out the light by burying her face in his chest.

 

"Good morning," he chuckled. Kakashi settled a hand on her bare back and stroked lazy circles.

 

Sakura responded with a happy hum and looked up with one half-open eye at the sound of a page turning. Kakashi was propped up against the bed reading another well-worn copy of the Icha Icha Paradise series. "How many times have you read that one?" she yawned.

 

"Many, many times." He replied without looking up from his book, but amusement tugged the edge of his lips.

 

"Don't you ever get bored of reading the same thing?"

 

"No."

 

Sakura yawned again. "Why not?" She pushed herself up to lie an arm and her head on top of his lower abdomen. Still-bleary green eyes tried to focus on him.

 

He stared down at her, his amusement clear, and his smile widened. "Because some pleasures are worth having, again and again."

 

It takes a second for her sleepy brain to pick up his double entendre and when it does, Sakura's lips form a silent 'OH' in understanding. After a moment, she sighed dramatically and traced her nails playfully around his closest nipple. "I'll tell you my favorite part if you tell me yours. "

 

Her tone is deceptively shy and innocent.

 

If not for the book masking the lower half of his face, Sakura would've seen his mouth fall open. But his eyes showed genuine surprise and she felt her face redden at the admission. "I was curious," she offered sheepishly. "And anyway, it was before…" she shrugged and looked away, unwilling to finish the sentence.

 

Momentarily lost in her thoughts, she didn't notice Kakashi drop the book to the side of the bed nor the awed expression he wore as he gazed at her. Awe of her strength and courage to be with him, to bear the brunt of the gossip and the judgement that comes with wearing the mark of Uchiha every day, and still be able to smile and tease above all of it. "You're incredible."

 

Sakura looked back at him in surprise.  She was so achingly beautiful to him in that moment that his heart skipped a beat. He brushed pink locks from her eyes and gently cupped her face in his hand. "I—" he swallowed, caught himself. "I am so amazed by you."

 

Kakashi leaned forward and kissed her temple lightly. Sakura closed her eyes and bit back a soft cry. She knows the words he meant to say— had almost said several times over the past few days —and she wishes she could tell him how grateful she is for his understanding, for his constant and reassuring presence, and for loving her the way she'd always hoped and dreamed to be loved. But the words get caught in her throat, too.

 

Because if this is just a dream, speaking those words would surely shatter it. And she wasn't ready to face the reality of their actions. Not yet. Two weeks was not nearly enough time.

 

She cupped his face with both her hands and drew him into a deep and tender kiss. His tongue moves languidly against hers, savoring the unspoken gratitude. Kakashi feels her relax and hum softly in appreciation. When they finally break for air, he graces her with the most devastatingly handsome smile she'd seen yet.

 

His eyes glimmer with mischief. "You can tell your favorites if you want, but I'm going to show you mine."

 

———

 

The next day, Sakura meets Kakashi in the secret guest house of the garden. With him are the results of their experimental transformation.

 

She lifted two lustrous, silver-white bands to the light of the fire and her eyes widen with recognition. "Are these…?"

 

"Yes," he smiled. "After the analysis I had the sample fashioned into these bracelets. They're titanium. Deceivingly light but strong as steel. Non-magnetic, non-corrosive, non-conducting for heat and electricity."

 

"They're beautiful."

 

He watched fondly as her face glowed with wonder and amazement. "They're yours."

 

She looked at him, stunned, and let the bracelets fall to her lap. "Why?"

 

For a split second, Kakashi remembers her tear-stained face and the broken look in her eyes the last time she asked him the simple question. It was only a few months ago, but it felt like a lifetime. He blinked the memory away and picked up the two bands. He rubbed his fingers over one and it began to pulse a soft, purple glow in trace patterns distinctive to chakra burns.

 

"The element is a fusion of our chakras. It will always belong to us."

 

He offered the bracelets back to her and she slid them both onto one hand. She can see and feel now, the care taken into the cut and polish of the bands. "They're exquisite."

 

Wordlessly, Kakashi catches her arm and slides two fingers through the space between one of the bands and her wrist. The pads of his fingers brush over her pulse and it leaps at the contact. Gently, he pushes the band off her wrist and, taking her other hand in his, slides it over her fingers and palm. He caresses the soft skin below her pulse there before letting go. "Like this," he whispered.

 

They regard each other for a long moment. Kakashi's expression is calm, kind, and unguarded. Sakura's lips part but she is at a loss for words. This is no simple gift.

 

"It's a reminder of your strength," he adds quietly, as if reading the unspoken question in her eyes. "It's evidence of the extraordinary things you are capable of."

 

It's evidence of us.

 

Sakura's heart swells as unbidden tears brim her eyes. She wipes at them with her arm before lunging at Kakashi, grabbing him in an embrace so tight he cannot breath. "Thank you," she cries. "I'll wear them always." Then she releases him just enough to press her lips to his, and steals his breath in a completely different way.

 

———

 

They are granted a few more days of bliss before a hawk appears in Kakashi's office. The note it carries is rushed and to the point.

 

Didn't stop them all. Attack imminent.

 

He feels the vibrations of the first blast before he sees it. Kakashi rushes to the top of Hokage tower and when he spots the smoke coming from the medical district, his heart seizes.

 

Two masked ANBU appear on either side of him.

 

"Report!"

 

"Encounter at the general hospital. Yamato and Sai on the scene."

 

Kakashi takes off immediately. He tries to assure himself that his worry is only as deep as his regard for Sakura. She was neither weak nor foolish. She was a jounin-level kunoichi that could handle both offensive and defensive combat, and the presence of her former teammates likely meant she'd be the latter. Assuming, that is, she was in battle at all.

 

Dread stewed in the pit of his stomach.

 

When he lands in front of Konoha general hospital beside Yamato, the building tower is teetering dangerously close to collapse. A quick glance at Yamato's hands locked in a Wood transformation jutsu, the resulting wooden beams supporting the tower slowly cracking under its pressure, tells Kakashi nearly everything he needs to know about the situation. Behind him, a full ANBU squad and several jounin appear.

 

"Sai and Ino are evacuating civilians," the former captain explains through gritted teeth. "I won't be able to hold this much longer." Several jounin and ANBU immediately disappear into the building to assist.

 

Dark, heavy-set eyes shoot a look at the Rokudaime that makes his blood instantly run cold. "They're after Sakura."

 

A second and third blast explodes one after the other from a building several blocks down the street.

 

NO.

 

Kakashi's heart rams hard against his chest as he races as fast as his limbs and chakra would take him to the impact zone.  He stumbles with the forward momentum and lands abruptly at the edge of a collapsed building. An ANBU appears instantly beside him and steadies him, mistaking his stumble for an injury. “Hokage-sama?”

 

The cold grip of dread squeezed tighter on his heart.

 

The dust clears and a figure slowly emerges from the rubble. When he recognizes it, Kakashi's knees buckle under him and his heart shatters into a million pieces somewhere by his feet. Two more ANBU appear around him in defensive positions, but it’s too late. The Rokudaime has been fatally wounded in a way that's impossible to guard against.

 

He's completely devastated.

 

He's also, simultaneously, relieved.

 

Sakura is alive. Bruised, but alive.

 

And carrying her out of the destruction is Uchiha Sasuke.

 

———

 

Chapter Text

They'd called her Konoha's core.

 

The one that held the Uchiha's leash. The one that captured the Hokage's heart. The one they knew controlled the medical resources that were the strength of Konoha's trading power and the one, they said, whose death would cripple Fire's deal with Iron.

 

Of all the potential targets, they had determined Sakura to be the easiest but most crucial to take out. She was not as strong as Naruto, not as elusive to find as Sasuke, not as protected as the Hokage. She was not as well-known as any of the three men alone. And yet, she was close enough to all of them to smother— if only for a short while —the power houses fuelling Fire's flame.

 

And it would be enough, they said, to show the world that the Will of Fire was not as untouchable and unstoppable as it seemed.

 

So Sakura ran.

 

As a medic, her first priority was the safety of the patients in the hospital. The samurai had laughed at her when they caught up a few blocks later and surrounded her. There was no need, they had said, as they cornered her into the medical supply warehouse. They may have been cast as rebels in Iron, but they maintained their sense of honour— they had no intentions of harming civilians and innocents. But if she ran again, they knew the daycare wasn't far away.

 

Anger drove a torrent of chakra to her hands. She intended to bring the whole warehouse down all at once. But as her fists slammed into the foundation of the building, she caught a streak of shadow from the corner of her eye take out the sentries at the door.

 

Sakura stood, suddenly paralysed, as her world literally crashed down on itself. A large portion of the ceiling was falling towards her when darkness wrapped itself around her and another explosion shook the air.

 

She crouched instinctively under the dark cloak and felt an arm held protectively above her against falling debris. The next thing she knew, she was being lifted up and into the arm of the last man she had expected to see again.

 

“You froze,” Sasuke stated without even looking at her. He scanned the clearing dust and rubble for remaining threats.

 

“You’re here,” she replied, still staring at him dumbfounded.

 

The corner of his lips quirked just a little and he spared her a quick once over with his mismatched eyes. “You look well.”

 

She blushed and curled into herself. A compliment from Sasuke was rare and always hard-won. "Thank you, dear."

 

He set her down near where the building entrance had once been and nodded his head once to acknowledge the waiting ANBU squad. Tension was still thick in the air. Several masked guards were in ready stances with hands hovering close to their blades. A muscle twitched in Sasuke's clenched jaw as he dragged one foot back slowly. He eyed each ANBU warily.

 

"Wait." Sakura raised both hands and stepped in front of him. "He's with us. He saved me."

 

“Stand down.”

 

The voice is familiar, commanding, and weighted by a heavy sigh. The ANBU shift just enough to reveal the Hokage behind them, head bowed and shoulders hunched in what passes as one of his trademark slouches. Kakashi’s eyes rise slowly and when they reluctantly meet hers, Sakura's heart clenches. The truth weighing down on his shoulders— the crushing reality of their situation —hits her mercilessly:

 

It's over.

 

Her heart pounds furiously against her chest as she fights the urge to cry out, ‘No!’ To sprint over and wrap him in a crushing embrace in front of everyone.

 

He sees the way she wavers. Sees the realization and the distress in her face. And it's terrible but he’s grateful for that tiny bit she gives away. That even in Sasuke's presence he can still move her with a look.

 

That she feels the ache as deeply as he does.

 

The faintest hint of a smile reaches watery eyes as he gives a small nod. “It’s alright.” This is how it was always going to end.

 

Sakura lets out a ragged breath as the ANBU and Sasuke relax their stances. She holds her hands close to her chest to keep them from visibly trembling; her fingers curled tightly on the bands on her wrists.

 

A cool hand falls on her shoulder and she squeezes her eyes shut to keep from screaming in anguish.

 

"You should take care of that," said Sasuke, dropping his hand to lightly touch the edge of a gash running down her forearm. It looked like a surface wound, but there’s more blood flowing now than he expected. His eyes narrow with concern as he steps beside her and notices, for the first time, how pale and distressed she looks. “Are you okay?”

 

No, she thinks darkly, and almost laughs at the absurdity of him asking. Her hands drop to her side and she turns to Sasuke with a small, shaky smile. “Yes. Just a bit overwhelmed is all.”

 

He nods in understanding and takes a respectful step back from her. Sasuke had mulled over their last encounter as he'd rushed back to Konoha and the memory of her tears is still fresh in his mind. "Of course," he replied guiltily.

 

Familiar faces started to appear beside Kakashi to report in. The arrival of Naruto immediately catches Sasuke's attention and he raises a brow to Sakura in silent question. She nods sheepishly and he walks her over to where other medics have arrived with first aid supplies. As soon as she sits down he turns to join the group gathering around the Rokudaime. His fingers gently brush hers as he leaves and she fights the urge to shudder. 

 

Sakura shakes her head when another medic sits beside her with intent to work on her arm. “I can do it,” she dismisses, even as her vision starts to blur with tears.  It’s impossible to focus with how wildly her heart is pounding in her chest. She clumsily reaches for the disinfecting wipes left beside her and they fall, useless, near her feet. Her chest constricts and it physically aches to breathe without spilling the flood of emotions brimming in her eyes.

 

Kakashi watches her from the corner of his eye. When the wipes fall, he can no longer pretend not to notice her struggle. His feet move even before his mind is made up and his abrupt departure shocks all the shinobi gathered around him.  He walks over and kneels before Sakura, taking some fresh wipes from another pile. "Let me."

 

Her mouth opens to protest but both his hands are already on her arm. Her body goes rigid with hyper-awareness of the attention they’re drawing and she swallows nervously.

 

“I’m sorry this happened,” he said, voice remarkably calm and soothing. "But I'm glad you're okay."

 

Wide, green eyes stared at his concentrated brow as he carefully cleaned dirt from the wound.  “They knew," she whispered. About us.

 

His free hand softly but discretely caressed the underside of her arm. His eyes remained fixed on her injury. “They assumed.”

 

She sits still, barely breathing for fear of breaking this stolen moment. The furrow in Kakashi's brow deepened as he lifted the gauze and began to wrap it around her arm. “All they have is words,” he said quietly, for her ears only. His ministration is purposefully slow and gentle. “Stay close to Sasuke and it can’t touch you.” His fingers trace the edge of her newly bandaged arm and down to her closed fists. He cups them lightly and holds them up to inspect the bruised skin and swollen knuckles that brought a whole building down.

 

A memory of laughter and tangled sheets in early morning sunlight, Sakura showing him how to mould chakra to heal minor cuts and bruises, flashed in his mind. He coaxed her palms open and pressed a tiny amount of healing energy into her knuckles, just as she'd taught him. "You are so strong," he continued, his voice low and hushed as he fought the urge to press his lips to her fingers in apology. It was his fault. Her spilt blood was on him and now, with this action, the inevitable resurgence of gossip around her too. "Don't let this hurt you."

 

Sakura looked over his head, saw the dark-haired and travel-weary man who was her husband watching them, and the dam she'd been fighting to hold cracks just enough for tears to flow down her cheek. She wiped at her face with her free hand and sniffed back a cry. “And you?”

 

Kakashi rolled back on his heels and stared at her for a long moment. Even in heartbreak she is beautiful; glistening eyes bright with something akin to hope, chin raised stubbornly in near-defiance. It is a special kind of agony for him, to be with her in this moment knowing he may likely never again be with her. It’s plain to see by her expression that she hasn’t quite accepted their situation yet, but time would eventually help her heart accept what her mind already knew. He just needed to give her that time and the space to figure it out on her own.

 

His eyes crinkled up in a sad and bittersweet smile. “I’ll survive.”

 

———

 

There was a connection between them… something that hadn't been there before.

 

Sasuke sensed the strength of it in the way she watched the Rokudaime care for her wounds and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why is he helping her?"

 

Naruto raised both hands over his head and shrugged. "It's what a good friend would do." Dark brows rose in silent question and, unfazed, the blonde smiled lazily. "I was gonna offer but he beat me to it."

 

"They’ve gotten close.” No judgement in the statement. Only observation.

 

“Uh, yeah.” Naruto chuckled. "If you bothered to stick around every now and then like I keep telling you, you’d have known that.”

 

Sakura looked up at him then and the shock of her raw emotions jolts him. Sasuke's reaction must have shown because her tears flow immediately. His gut does another guilty flip. She wiped at her face with her free hand as Kakashi pulled away to give her space.

 

“You sure have a way with women,” Naruto shook his head and teased. He patted his old friend reassuringly on the back. “Be gentle, okay? You’re not going to fix things with her in one day.”

 

———

 

Debriefing was a tedious but necessary part of protocol.

 

Kakashi sat, tense and distracted as Sasuke gave a verbal account of his mission in Iron. The guilt was making his head hurt and the vividly intimate, wildly inappropriate flashes of Sakura that weighed said-guilt confused his body. He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbed his forehead, and crushed his rebellious imagination in check.

 

Sasuke paused. "Something the matter?"

 

"Just not feeling well," he answered honestly. He slumped back in his chair and stared warily at his former student. Sasuke stared back, brow raised slightly in question.

 

The younger man looked worn from travel, his face weathered and mildly tanned. A thin layer of dust clung to every visible part of his attire. His clothes were scuffed and faded with wear. There was anxiousness in the way his eyes darted to the window and impatience in the way his lips pursed. "You haven't talked to Sakura yet," Kakashi observed and his voice caught a little with her name. The inner turmoil he'd been quietly wrestling with since he saw them emerge from the rubble brewed into a storm. Unseen beneath his robes, his fists clenched.

 

"No."

 

Kakashi leaned forward then, one elbow propped on the table, and laid his head on his open hand. His mind was made up but he couldn't bring himself to look at Sasuke as he spoke. "Why don't you go find her and we'll continue later." He waved his free hand tepidly in dismissal, but inside his heart cracked and bled a little more.

 

It had to be done. Kakashi couldn't and wouldn't get in the way of the younger man if he intended to patch things up with the woman they loved. At the end of the day, he was still her husband. What was two glorious weeks of intimacy compared to an enduring first love if they rekindled the spark? He owed them that chance.

 

Sasuke's eyes narrowed and his mouth opened to object, but Kakashi's gaze was already unfocused and far away, immersed in some deep thought or personal memory.

 

He turned and left the room without a response.

 

"Was that wise?" The masked ANBU behind Kakashi asked in a hushed voice.

 

Silver-white brows rose with mild surprise. It was rare for his private guards to feel compelled to start a conversation. He could count the last few times in the many years since becoming Hokage on one hand. Kakashi tapped his masked lips thoughtfully and sighed. "Probably not."

 

But he knew where he'd find them. When it came to picking up Sarada from the daycare, Sakura would appear without fail no matter how crazy or difficult her day was.

 

Especially on difficult days.

 

From atop a nearby building, Kakashi watched as she lifted Sarada into a crushing hug and showered her with kisses. He watched as the initially surprised and flustered expression on her face brightened into a warm smile when Sasuke approached. She said something in greeting to Sasuke, then encouraged the bouncy toddler in her arms to do the same. Sasuke patted the child's head awkwardly and let his hand rest on her arm. He said something in return and gave a small, genuine smile. Kakashi's gut twisted and burned with jealousy as she visibly blushed and dropped her gaze.

 

The interaction confirmed a bond still very much existed between them. Would always exist.

 

He watched them leave together, as a family, and pushed both hands roughly through his hair. It's not like he ever believed he had a chance. Hope was a different matter, but nothing so good ever lived long in his life anyway. She and Sarada were going to be safer this way.

 

Maybe they'll work things out.

 

The thought pains him more than he'd ever admit. But Sakura deserved the chance to find happiness again in the life she'd worked so hard to achieve. With head bent and shoulders slumped in defeat, Kakashi slipped his hands into his pants pockets and walked away.

 

———

 

Sasuke stayed for dinner the first night. Sakura tried to be hospitable, but she was still shaken by the events of the day and the way his dark eyes watched her every move made her too nervous to really be conversational. Not that Sasuke had ever been the chatty type, but she'd usually have no problems filling the silence with stories about the time he'd been away.

 

Sarada spends as much time observing Sasuke as he does Sakura, her little mind trying to process in her own way why the strange man is with them. She pouts at Sakura making noises that sound distinctly like 'woof' and looks around the living room sadly. "Not tonight, little fan," Sakura apologized as she swept her up in an embrace. "Papa is here."

 

The little girl shoots a sceptical look at the taciturn man. A small smile curves his lips but she gives a disgruntled huff and buries her face in her mother's neck.

 

"I'm so sorry. It doesn't seem like she remembers you."

 

"It's alright," Sasuke said as he stood up from the table. "I wouldn't have expected her to." He walked over and tentatively prodded the child's hand. Sarada pulled it safely under her chest. "She's growing fast," he observed, brows raised in amusement.

 

Sakura's lips pursed thoughtfully as she glanced at the time on the wall. "I should get her ready for bed. Could I bother you to help clear the table? I can do the dishes later."

 

Sasuke nodded. "Of course."

 

Later, she finds him standing on the balcony scanning the night sky. She stepped behind him and hugged herself shyly. "Would you, umm, like to stay the night?"

 

Sasuke turned and looked at her. He noted the redness of her cheeks, her downcast gaze, and the way she nervously fingered the bands on her wrist. His ears strained to hear the accelerated beating of her heart; her discomfort and unease still so very strong. He sighed and shook his head. "Get some rest," he said and patted her reassuringly on the head. "We'll have some time again tomorrow."

 

Disappointment and relief washed over her as she watched Sasuke disappear into the night.

 

Sakura tried to sleep but her bed felt too cold, too empty. She stretched out her arm and thought about running them through ink-black hair, but her heart is bitter and cruel, conjuring instead a vision of hair that shone like starlight, of warm grey eyes and a dazzling smile.

 

Alone, the tears flow silently but freely onto her pillow. After a few minutes she switches cushions, only to discover the spare still carries Kakashi's scent. The surge of emotions it unlocks kills all chance of sleeping on a dry pillow that night.

 

As if sensing her distress, Sarada wakes soon after. With a soft cry the toddler climbs out of her bed and pitter-patters with bleary eyes into Sakura's bedroom. "Woof-woof," she sniffles as she crawls into the bed beside her mother.

 

Sakura curls herself around the little girl and kisses her temple.  "I know," she whispered. "I miss him too." She brushes dark strands from her little face and hums softly until Sarada drifts back to sleep.

 

A part of her understands this is how it must be. This is the life she'd carved for herself and had strived for since she was twelve. For Sarada, she couldn’t not try to make it work.

 

And even after everything, she did still love Sasuke. It wasn't something she could just switch off and let go. As her first love, a part of her heart would always belong to him. Already she felt the desire to return to how things were before he left. Before she let the yearning and desperate loneliness consume her. She felt the precarious hope that this time, maybe, things would be different. Because she felt stronger now. She was stronger now.

 

Her fingers trace the curve of the band on her wrist and a voice inside hissed, stronger because of HIM.

 

Kakashi. What she had with him was a moment stolen in time. A brief period when their stars aligned and their souls touched each other’s hearts.  Even if reality ensured they would never again be anything more than occasional friends, his love now also claimed permanent territory in her heart.

 

But it hurt. A lot.

 

The choice was never about love. Her duty, her first obligation was sworn to the Uchiha clan. Once an Uchiha always an Uchiha— THAT was the permanently binding, clan-specific part of the wedding ceremony. The samurai were not wrong about her significance in that respect: as long as she lived, she bound Sasuke's allegiance and the bloodline to Konoha.

 

The choice was, literally, now sleeping happily in front of her. And Sakura would choose her little fan always, in every occasion, every time. Somehow, Kakashi had understood this.

 

As long as we can, she recalled sadly as another tear rolled down her cheek. Until we can't.

 

It's in the calm, unwavering affection emanating from storm-grey eyes; the reverent touches and the way he folded himself around her, needing her close, that he let her know that even if he's not her first (or even second) choice, she would always be his. That if it was up to him to choose he'd choose her, always, every time and in every situation without a moment's hesitation. And it was this willingness for self-sacrifice, this near-reckless lack of self-preservation she'd witnessed for years, that worried her.

 

If the situation arose, he would give up everything for her. His title. His reputation. His life. The bandage on her arm was only the most recent proof and she couldn't let him do that. She wouldn't ever be able to forgive herself.

 

So until she sorted things out with Sasuke, she needed to be strong. For Sarada's sake, she needed to be brave and try. And to give it an honest chance, she needed to keep her distance from Kakashi.

 

———

 

Unfortunately, there's no way to completely avoid running into each other in the days that follow.  With Sasuke back, a reunion of the renowned Team 7 is all the village seemed to wish to talk about and see.

 

It is all Kakashi can do to nod and wave without letting on how his soul shatters and heart bleeds every time he sees her. Sitting in the same room as her and Sasuke is a slow kind of torture as he pretends, for the duration of whatever meeting it is, to not be madly in love with her and angry at him. The way the younger man sometimes stares at her, smirking, makes him see red. He tries miserably not to think about wandering hands under the table— it would only have been a week ago that he'd have done the same if the situation presented itself. His fists clench to keep from giving into a base desire to smack Sasuke and steal her away in front of everyone.

 

The void she leaves in his evenings are the most painful. He tries to compensate by working later hours, by training himself to the point of exhaustion and leaving just enough energy to drag himself home and collapse on the bed at night. But the loneliness always takes hold of him before he sinks into a restless slumber.

 

Sakura.

 

The dreams are vivid and merciless. He tries not to remember them as he wakes in a cold sweat, heart pounding and mouth dry. But the ghost of her lips linger on his skin and the cries of pleasure echo in his ears long after the ache between his legs subsides. It shocks and shames him how sick he is with desire for her.

 

The worst dreams, however, are the ones where she chooses him. Where she slips into the room and under the covers, wraps him in her embrace, and whispers the words that break his cursed longing. It's the cruellest, most painful thing in the world to wake up with a heart full of joy and a smile on his face, only to realize none of it was real. He holds shaking hands to his face and howls in agony. In the darkness of his lonely room, he bleeds his anguish and his pain.

 

When daylight breaks, he drags himself out of bed and places the mask back firmly over his face. The village still needed its Hokage and it was still his role to play. So his eyes may be redder and his smile hollow, but Kakashi soldiers on. It's what he knows how to do best.

 

What keeps him from crumbling completely is the knowledge that she's doing okay. That from what he's seen and heard, Sakura seemed to be making things work. That despite everything that's happened, she appeared to be happy.

 

And though it chips at his soul knowing he isn't the one to share in her happiness, in the end it's all he ever wanted for her.

 

———

 

She sees Kakashi from across the street, the conference table in a meeting, and the lobby of Jounin headquarters. He nods and waves as kindly as he used to, but he doesn’t come to speak to her. She doesn’t hold it against him; the wounds on the heart are still too fresh to not bleed a little at the sight of him, too.

 

Shadows appear under his eyes in the days that follow, dark and heavy.  Grief, frustration, and exhaustion dim the laughter that once filled his eyes. She knows rest eludes him, but she's conflicted about whether or not confronting him about it as his medic would only make it worse.

 

Sasuke visits her daily and keeps her company when she's not at work. He stays the night on her apartment couch after the first few days and they settle into a mostly amicable, mostly quiet routine of simply being in each other's lives again. There is no discussion about their last confrontation, about their current relationship to each other. She tells him instead about Sarada's accomplishments, about some of the work she's done while he's been away. She catches him up on what she thinks is relevant village news and gets his opinion on dishes to try for their meals in the evenings.

 

Sasuke watches her carefully throughout it all, trying to gauge her feelings and constantly recalibrating appropriate behaviour for himself. His intentions to patch things up with her are sincere, but as the days pass he finds it increasingly difficult to remember that there is even anything that needs fixing between them.

 

Sakura is as warm and kind as he remembers. There is no trace of the desperation or disappointment from their last encounter. The only tell she has is a mild nervousness and unease when he gets close enough to touch (which he never does, of course). Physical intimacy, after all, was the rift that divided their relationship expectations. She wanted it and he did not.

 

Sasuke bides his time, observing her, hoping she'll break the ice first on the subject and being surprised, with each passing day, when she doesn't. Sometimes, when she thinks he isn't looking, he thinks he catches a sad and faraway look in her eyes. Sometimes, their gaze would meet and she'd give him a small, understanding smile.

 

It worries him.

 

The woman he married was open and passionate. She faced her doubts and fears even when her body trembled and tears streamed down her face. She was NOT calm complacency and quiet forgiveness. He didn't want to force it, but there should've been a talk by now. He was just so accustomed to her broaching important topics first that Sasuke wasn't sure how to start.

 

"Come with me," he blurts one evening after Sarada had fallen asleep.

 

Sakura blinks. She can't quite believe her ears, but it sounded like he'd just said the second most desired words she'd hoped to hear from him. "What?"

 

"Come with me," he repeats as he closes the distance between them. "Let's see the world together again." Tentatively, his fingers intertwine with hers in a loose and precarious hold.

 

Sakura looks at him, stunned. "Why?"

 

Sasuke's eyes narrow. "Why not?" His jaw clenches as her fingers slip from his.

 

"I just can't…" she huffed, steeled herself. "I have a life here now. You have a life here now."

 

"Sakura," he admonished and tried not to chuckle at her naïvety. "You know I can't—"

 

"No," she cut in, surprising him again with the sudden intensity in her tone. "I don't know. Not really. We've never actually talked about it and you've made it clear it was never something up for discussion."

 

Sasuke stepped back defensively, unsure of the determined flame now burning in her eyes but feeling strangely drawn to it. "Then tell me," he said with a small grin, "why you'll stay."

 

She stared at him for a moment, eyes wide and incredulous. Did he really not see? "I'm a mother. I want to be here for Sarada," Sakura stated the most obvious. "I want to continue as the chief medic. All our friends and family are here. All the love and support is here." A part of her understands it's difficult for Sasuke to reconcile the place which holds the most violent and painful memories for him as the home to everything he's ever loved. And it's an old and bittersweet feeling for Sakura, to know that things could've been so very different if the love had been able to overcome his pain.

 

She purses her lips as he stares at her, completely unmoved by her response. But there is still one more card to play and at the moment, she's feeling bold. Reckless, even. In a soft, gentle voice she says, "Because everything your brother wished for you is here."

 

The hair on her skin prickled warningly as he swiftly closed the distance and wrapped his hand firmly around her wrist. The metal of the band is caught in his grip and it presses hard enough into her skin to bruise. Sakura gasped, met his cold gaze, and bit back a cry. She would not be intimidated or stand down.

 

The anger died as quickly as it had appeared. Onyx-black eyes bore into her, intrigued and impressed by her defiance, as he released her. The shift of power in the room is tangible.

 

"And if I stayed," he started slowly, carefully, gaze holding steady with hers. "What would happen?"

 

Sakura rubbed her wrist. "We'd be a family," she answered honestly.

 

Emboldened, he touched her face. Sakura's eyes fluttered closed and she leaned into his hand reflexively. "What would I be to you?"

 

"My husband."

 

A small, dark smile curled Sasuke's lips. "I'm still me, Sakura. Are you sure it's what you want?"

 

"You know it's all I'd ever wanted." Despite her heart screaming silently in agony, the words rung true. She stilled as she felt him draw closer. A tentative, chaste brush of cool lips on hers makes her shiver.

 

Vibrant green eyes opened once more and stared at him, so brave and puzzled and defiant. So captivating.

 

Interesting. It had been a while since Sasuke felt so drawn to her. He stepped back and bowed lightly, conceding to the rare defeat. "I'll need to think about it." Without looking back, he left through the apartment balcony and disappeared into the night.

 

Alone again, Sakura collapsed to her knees and sobbed into her hands.

 

Her gamble had worked.

 

So why did every fibre in her being feel like she'd lost?

 

———

 

Kakashi rubbed his temple as he dragged himself down the street. Already, a dull ache was settling in his head for the night. Out of habit, he slowed down at the intersection of Sakura's street and looked longingly up at her apartment. The lights were on.

 

Her knowing smile as she took his hand and lead him to her bedroom flashed briefly in his mind. He groaned and rubbed both hands roughly over his face. Why did his conscious hate him so much?

 

"You look terrible."

 

The blood drains from his face when he sees the figure leaning casually against the next building.

 

"Kakashi," the dark avenger greets curtly and pushes himself up to walk beside him.

 

"Sasuke." It takes all his will not to tense or seem in any way defensive— OR like he wants to throttle the younger man. He continues down the street with renewed vigour motivated by the need to get away. But Sasuke easily keeps pace.

 

"Have you noticed anything different about Sakura?"

 

Kakashi fought the urge to roll his eyes. "I'm probably not the right person to ask," he answered honestly.

 

"Naruto said you would know. You've been spending a lot of time together while I was away."

 

If he wasn't already so miserable he would've laughed out loud at the bitter irony. "Different how?" he asked, redirecting.

 

The younger man is thoughtfully silent for a moment. "Confident," he decides at last. "Stronger, emotionally."

 

A long, trying sigh drags itself out of Kakashi. "You've been away for a while. Sarada isn't the only one who's grown in that time."

 

Sasuke digested his words carefully for another long moment before a smile appeared on his lips. "It's attractive. I was sceptical when Naruto suggested a gift as a peace offering but… it seems the dress served its purpose, after all."

 

It takes every last ounce of Kakashi's being not to scream. His headache is splitting now. "Have you told her any of this?"

 

"No. I wanted to be sure first."

 

Kakashi pinched his temple. "You know, communication is normally how a relationship works."

 

Sasuke looked at him with amusement, brow raised, wondering when his former sensei would know anything about relationships to feel compelled to give such advice. He would need to ask Naruto… no, Sakura… about it later. "Relationships also need both parties to be present," he added. Scowled. Looked away. "Apparently."

 

At this, Kakashi stops. He stares at his former student and holds his breath as the decision, literally and visibly, dawns on Sasuke. "I might have to stay a while longer." Confused and just a little bit unsettled by the self-realization, the dark avenger leapt away.

 

The ache in Kakashi's chest— constant and just barely bearable till now —surged to a new level of painful. This. This was it. He'd let her go holding onto the small, selfish hope that things wouldn't work out between them. But now that he'd practically sent Sasuke back into her arms, the very real and likely outcome was going to be that he'd lose her. Completely.

 

His heart sinks. He pushes both hands through his hair feeling both angry and defeated. He needed a distraction from this fresh torment. A release. He burst into a blur of speed into the night. Kakashi didn't care where he was heading, only that it would be away and far far from the phantom touches that waited for him in the loneliness of sleep.

 

———

 

Sakura was just about to call it one awful, miserable night when three ANBU suddenly appeared in her kitchen. "Your presence is needed."

 

The closest ANBU pushed an extra uniform into her hands. "Put this on."

 

There's a special coating on the clothing making it feel thicker than normal and an additional piece of fabric for her hair. The mask they chose for her is shaped like a dog with red paint streaked down the left eye hole. Like a blood tear. The significance is not lost on her.

 

Her heart wrenches painfully as dread creeps into her gut. "Why?"

 

"To conceal you." From Sasuke.

 

Sakura bites her lower lip and begins to undress. The ANBU turn their back to her but do not give her any additional space. The air is suddenly thick with tension and urgency.

 

They take off into the night without a word — one ANBU leading, then Sakura, and another tailing. The third stays behind with Sarada. The pace is gruelling. Sakura's thighs burn after the first few kilometres and she distracts herself from the uneasiness growing in her gut by concentrating on not stumbling and falling too far behind the lead. As the lights from the village disappear behind them, she becomes vaguely aware that they’re headed somewhere near the borderlands.

 

Two barks signal the approach of familiar ninken who relieve the ANBU as Sakura's escorts for the remaining few metres. Heart racing and blood pounding in her ears, Sakura leaps from the shadows of the forest and onto a clearing illuminated by moonlight.

 

Kakashi is standing on the edge of a cliff, looking up wistfully at the stars. There is something about his composure that is both familiar and foreboding. Fear chills Sakura to the bones as she walks the last few paces towards him.

 

"I ordered you to leave," his voice is gravelly. Broken.

 

"I—"

 

A kunai slashed the air beside her ear, knicking the mask and cutting her off. Sakura blinked and stepped back. She hadn't even seen his hand move.

 

"That's my only warning," he said, and she realizes that he doesn't recognize her. He hadn't even looked back.

 

"What are you doing?" she asked, her voice muffled by the mask.

 

The call of a bird of prey flying somewhere in the dark clouds overhead catches his attention briefly. "Thinking," he replied simply. "How graceful the leaves look when they let go."

 

And just like that, he disappeared.

 

One minute he was there and then he was not.

 

"NO!" screamed Sakura as she ran to the edge and over it, lunging after his free-falling form.

 

She threw a kunai attached to a wire after him and tugged just enough to make it loop around his waist. With a hard yank, she closed the distance between them and wrapped an arm possessively around his chest. She rips her mask and hair piece off before ramming another kunai into the cliff face to slow down their fall.

 

Kakashi's expression transforms from anger to shock when he sees her, pink hair lashing out like wild flames around her face, hardened with concentration, green eyes burning angrily. "BAKA!" she screamed.

 

He swung his legs around and plunged two kunai of his own into the cliff face, further slowing their descent. But Sakura's momentum was strong and their gravitational control only superficial. They were tumbling, rough and way too fast, when Sakura hit the cliff wall awkwardly. Her grip around his chest loosened just long enough for gravity to rip them apart and Kakashi watched in horror as she plunged sharply to the right and out of his reach.

 

He leapt after her, catching her in his arms and curling himself around her protectively as they rolled and landed onto a narrow cliff face. The breath is knocked out of him as Kakashi takes the brunt of the landing. Sakura rolls on top and immediately knocks another breath directly from his chest with a serious intent to bruise. He groaned and coughed as he felt bone crack and managed to catch another angry fist before it collided with his face. "BAKA!" she screamed again, louder still, tears staining her now-dirt covered face. "I thought I lost you!"

 

Later, he would blame it on the adrenaline. A need to feel something that would, for a few heart-pounding seconds, make him forget all the ache and misery that was threatening to overwhelm him. Kakashi had no intention of dying… not while she still breathed in this world. And then he blinked and she was there— a fierce and angry siren pinning him down like one of his darkest, wildest dreams. He sat up and kissed her hard; swallowing her anger and her fear.

 

By the gods, he missed her.

 

He felt her protest melt away as she whimpered and curled her fingers into his arm, desperately clutching him closer.  Anger and desire mixed confusingly inside her as Sakura's hands fell to grip his wrists and pushed him back down, roughly, to the cliff face. "You're stronger than this," she seethed.

 

He half-laughed, half-cried in torment as desire and desperation, set ablaze by the thrill of the moment, rushed blood to his shamelessly hardening loins being crushed under her weight. "No," he confessed. "I'm not."

 

Kakashi pushed back with all his might, surprising her as he forced his lips once more against hers and they fell…

 

...and fell in a tumble of limbs and lust and longing…

 

until the ANBU guards found them again, wrapped in torn and dirty cloaks and not much else, at the cliff base an hour later.

 

After they'd cleaned up at a nearby stream and were given fresh clothes, they sat atop the cliff face once more. Sakura's legs swung casually over the edge as she leaned back and pressed a little healing chakra to a conspicuous bruise forming on Kakashi's exposed jaw. He sat behind her, wrapping them both in his thick cloak, arms held possessively around her waist. He squeezed tight and nuzzled her ear affectionately. "Leave it. No one will know."

 

She turned her head and though her expression looked upset, laughter danced in her eyes. "I'll know."

 

He pulled her closer still and kissed her temple. "All the more reason to keep it."

 

They watched in tranquil silence as the first rays of light spilled over the horizon. The Land of Fire lit up before them in bold splashes of crimson and gold. A hawk cried majestically above them. Kakashi tucked his head between her neck and shoulder before the warmth could touch his face. He closed his eyes and breathed in her scent. How much he would give to stay like this with her forever.

 

"I love you."

 

Her breath hitched. A single tear rolled down her cheek and onto his. Kakashi brushed his lips under her eye to wipe the tear stain away. "No matter what happens, I love you."

 

Sakura drew her knees up to her chest and turned to face him. Her eyes darkened with deep emotions and brimmed with unshed tears. Trembling lips opened as she swallowed back a cry. Kakashi brushed her hair affectionately from her face and pulled her hand over his heart. "Don't worry," he whispered into her hair. "You have me."

 

The sound of dry leaves crushed by approaching sandals forces Sakura to look over Kakashi's shoulder and acknowledge the two men stepping out into the clearing.

 

Everything, absolutely everything goes numb.

 

"We've been looking for you," said Sasuke.

 

———

 

 

Chapter Text

Naruto stared as the two got up from their sitting position on the cliff edge. There is a strange and terrified look on Sakura's face as she bites down on her bottom lip. There is also something resigned and guarded about the way Kakashi leans close to her, his legs shifting discretely into a defensive stance.

 

Naruto’s eyes narrow suspiciously as Sakura tugs on the clearly-borrowed jounin shirt she's wearing, at least two sizes too large, and watches her whole face redden with shame. "What's going on?"

 

A dark, clipped laugh cuts through the morning air. "Don't you see?" Barely restrained anger dripped like acid from Sasuke's voice. "The rumours were true."

 

A single black eye locks on Sakura, sending icy chills through her veins and freezing her heart. She casts her gaze downwards but it's too late— Sasuke had seen the fear and the guilt.  She steals an anxious glance at Kakashi. He doesn't look at her as he carefully assesses the threat before them, but presses one hand warm and reassuringly against her back.

 

Sakura had always had a tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve. It was something Sasuke normally considered a weakness. But in the look she gives Kakashi when she glances back, confirming rather than denying his statement, Sasuke experienced a blow so devastating Sakura could have rammed her fist through his chest and still not inflict as much damage to his ego. A dark and furious aura emanated from the Uchiha.

 

Kakashi sighed and stepped in front of Sakura with a kunai drawn in each hand.

 

Another laugh, darker and deeper still, filled the air between them. "You would fight me?"

 

"I would defend what's precious to me," Kakashi answered steadily and felt Sakura's hand on his shoulder pull him back.

 

"Don't."

 

He knew by the gleam in Sasuke's eye that the young man was going to vent his rage, one way or the other. Based on his appearance with the avenger, there was a good change Naruto would join rather than fight against Sasuke. This left himself and Sakura to stand against the young men. While Kakashi doubted the Uchiha would give in to his anger enough to directly harm the mother of his child, he would rather take it all on himself than risk her involvement. Sasuke disappeared in a dark blur and, despite Sakura's plea, Kakashi followed. Metal sparks and the sound of steel clashing with steel filled the air above them and headed towards the forest.

 

Sakura's pulse raced as she locked eyes with Naruto, still looking confused at the edge of the clearing. "Stop them!" she screamed and leapt after them.

 

But barely five hours of restful sleep over the last few days, further exhausted by the physical and emotional whirlwind that had been Sakura in the last few hours, took a very rapid and unforgiving toll on Kakashi. He managed to defend against several heavy-handed attacks before slipping out of reach with a clone jutsu to catch his breath. The simple act of inhaling is excruciating. Kakashi pressed a hand carefully around his freshly healed ribs where the inflamed muscles screamed against the additional exertion and winced. He realizes then that as much as he'd prefer NOT being burnt alive by Uchiha rage, there is no way he can give Sasuke a serious fight in his weakened state without blood being spilt.

 

Shoulders sag in visible resignation as he hops down from his hiding place and walks into a small clearing with hands open and visibly unarmed. The avenger appeared across from him with a sinister grin.

 

Suddenly, the ground between them quaked and shattered as Sakura landed with a furious ground punch. A small crater formed around her and the resounding impact shook and splintered the immediately surrounding trees.

 

"Sasuke!" She stood and faced her husband with eyes blazing. "Stop this."

 

His voice is cold and unmoved. "Get out of the way."

 

"NO."

 

"Will someone tell me what's going on?" Naruto whined as he hopped gingerly behind Sasuke and raised a quizzical brow at his former teammates.

 

Sasuke stepped forward. His head cocked to the side as he stared Sakura down. "Dobe," he spat, gaze locked intensely on hers. "They're lovers."

 

It takes a moment for the words to sink in…. and another, longer moment for Naruto to comprehend the seriousness of the accusation. But when he does his chakra erupts in a bright and furious flame. "WHAAAAT?!"

 

A lone ANBU guard appeared before Naruto and boldly placed a hand up in warning. "This is not your fight."

 

"THE HELL IT ISN'T," Naruto growled, eyes transforming into black and gold slits as the power he released grew stronger. Without even looking at the masked face, he moved forward to push the guard aside.

 

Fingers move with lightning speed to precision-tap key pressure points in Naruto's arms, thighs, sides and forehead. His flaming aura flickered out instantly. Naruto stared, dumbfounded, at the two fingers held just over the dip in his collarbone. While the complete loss of chakra left no doubt that the guard before him was a Hyuuga, what makes the breathe in his chest still is the way she holds her other hand curled at her side in a half-formed, preemptive hand sign.  He knows that sign and what it would do if fully formed.

 

Recognition dawns on Naruto as he takes a wary step back and looks at the guard properly. He's not just familiar with the series of Gentle Fist-style moves she'd used on him… he's familiar with the nuance of her particular movements. Intimately familiar.

 

"Stand down," she said in a hushed voice. "Please."

 

Blue eyes filled with hurt and displeasure as he stared at Hinata’s masked face. He'd been naïve to believe she was only assisting in her sister's combat training as the head of the Hyuuga family. "Would you really knock me out?"

 

"Yes."

 

Naruto smacked his forehead with both palms and groaned. This morning was just one bad surprise after another.

 

Sasuke glanced back at him impatiently. "Well?"

 

The blonde scratched the back of his head and couldn't look at him. "Sorry, man," he grumbled. "I can't back you on this."

 

Dark eyes narrowed. "What?"

 

"It's Kakashi-sensei, okay?!" Naruto exclaimed and pointed with exasperation at the Rokudaime. "It's CRAZY. Everything about this is…" he shot a glance at the masked guard again and he swore he sensed her smile. "… it's just not what I expected." With a defeated grunt, Naruto turned on his heel and started back towards the village alone. He didn't bother to look back.

 

"Sasuke." Sakura swallowed and took a step towards her husband. She raised both hands up in a sign of good faith. "Please, let me explain."

 

A fist clenched white at Sasuke's side. He reluctantly returned his attention back to her. "I was going to stay."

 

"I know," she breathed, just over a whisper. "I know and I'm sorry. I wasn't going to keep this from you, but… I just… I didn't know how..."

 

Sasuke's gaze turned to the man behind Sakura. Rage burned hot in the pit of his stomach but the presence of ANBU awakened enough sense in him to recall that any further violence could mark him a traitor. Again. "Tell your guards to stand down."

 

Grey eyes widened for a moment before Kakashi nodded, once, in compliance. The ANBU that had stopped Naruto retreated once more to the shadows.

 

Sakura took another anxious step towards Sasuke and voiced the obvious. "You can't lay a finger on him."

 

She glanced back at the Rokudaime and was surprised to see his visible expression lifted in a soft, sad smile. "You should go, Sakura."

 

"What?"

 

"He is my responsibility. Sarada is yours."

 

"Baka," Sakura spat, looking frustrated and annoyed. "YOU are also mine."

 

Tension spiked again as she realized, belatedly, the dual truth of her choice of words.

 

"Sarada is probably already looking for you," Kakashi added gently.

 

She glanced at one man and then the other, cheeks burning red and feeling sick to her stomach. She screamed in frustration.

 

She was the only thing standing between them.

 

As much as she hated to leave, Kakashi was right— no matter what, Sarada came first. Her gaze met his for a long and meaningful moment. "Don't die."

 

Then she turned and walked purposefully towards Sasuke. He stared at her, hard and impassionate, as her expression twisted into a complicated combination of worry and guilt and anguish. Her fingernails dug into her palms as she took in a deep breath. "Don't you dare get exiled."

 

Pulse racing and doubt weighing uncertainly in her gut, Sakura removed herself from the battle and followed after Naruto.

 

Kakashi lowered his arm slowly to his side. "Don’t blame her. I’m the one at fault."

 

"I know."

 

"I won't fight you."

 

"I know," the younger man repeated, lips curling cruelly. "And I promise not to lay a finger on you." He closed his eyes and brushed his hair aside. When he opened them again, a mangekyou and a rinnegan stared out.

 

Kakashi doesn't resist as he's yanked into the genjutsu. Sasuke's illusionary dimension looks different from Itachi's Tsukiyomi, but the sense of helplessness it evokes is frighteningly familiar. Instead of a world painted in black and red, the landscape is a jagged field of greys under a crystallized amethyst sky. Phantom hands drag Kakashi forcefully to his knees and Sasuke materializes before him, sword drawn.

 

His body stills and his heart slows in preparation. The fear drains from him as Kakashi looks up to a shadowed face filled with malice, and surrenders consciously to the inevitable. "I won't fight," he repeated calmly. "There's no need for this."

 

"True," Sasuke agreed dryly, "but it's so much more satisfying." Mismatched eyes glowered with fierce and feral intent as he lifted the sword and drove it slowly through the older man's heart.

 

Kakashi's scream is agonizing.

 

There would be no mercy.

 

———

 

Sakura knocks on her own apartment door nervously. She understands, from the pointed look on Ino’s face when she answers the door carrying Sarada, that she'll have to tell her everything. And for the most part, she's relieved. The tears well up as she throws herself into the blonde’s waiting arms and kisses her daughter.

 

Ino passes the toddler to Sakura and ushers them into the kitchen where two cups of steaming hot coffee are waiting. "I can guess where it began," Ino says carefully, taking a seat behind the counter. "So tell me how and when it became more."

 

———

 

Sasuke blinked and released Kakashi from the genjutsu. The Rokudaime groaned and collapsed to the ground, completely unconscious. His guards appeared immediately and lifted him up on their shoulders. One even drew a sword on Sasuke but he was too distracted to care and notice.

 

He’d interrogated Kakashi intending to find proof of his unsavory intentions. That he, like many men before him, had pursued Sakura with physical lust and desire and, because of their history, had somehow succeeded in charming her into falling in love with him. Inner strength and beauty of character, after all, was not what men sought when they looked at Sakura.

 

The Uchiha held his hand to his face and turned away to hide the traitorous tear staining his cheek. His chest ached with both shame and regret. "Old fool," he sneered.

 

Through his sword, he'd absorbed Kakashi's memories in a quick succession of flashes. In seconds, he’d seen AND felt it all through his eyes— her lonely figure on the balcony. The broken Why? The way her eyes lit up when she began to genuinely smile again and the easy solace Kakashi found with simply being in her company. There were memories of green eyes bright with amusement and wide with hope. A lilting laugh and a teasing smile.

 

He felt Kakashi's admiration and respect grow into something warmer, fonder. Something real that bloomed from the special kind of comfort he felt only in her presence. For the first time in his life, Kakashi yearned. His desire grew enough to dare a kiss. Sasuke felt the resulting guilt, the terror of confrontation, and the pathetically weak attempt at resistance in the face of Sakura, so sure and determined and strong in her resolve.

 

He felt the passion.

 

He saw Kakashi's memory of a morning after's sunshine spilling through the apartment window, holding her sleeping form close but kept awake by troubling thoughts. Kakashi believed enough in her role towards maintaining peace in the shinobi world that he was willing (though highly reluctant) to let her go. The affair was doomed to end badly and Kakashi was convincing himself that less damage would be dealt if he could just muster the courage to walk away before it did. Then Sakura stirred, looked up at him with a sleepy and achingly beautiful smile, and like a fool he fell even more hopelessly in love.

 

The lingering aftertaste of the memory is bittersweet. There was once a time when she'd smiled like that at Sasuke. The glaring difference was in how strongly Kakashi reacted to it compared to him. It was a hard pill to swallow to not just know, but FEEL another man value Sakura in ways that made him fall shamefully short. Because Kakashi had seen so much more than just another pretty face. He'd seen a heart as kind as it was fiercely loyal, as generous as it was alive with passion. He'd seen in her the kind of courage and enduring strength that inspired him to hope… to live for a dream that was, for the first time, his and his alone.

 

Sakura.

 

Even if Kakashi would never again be able to feel her in his arms again… as long as she wore the bands on her hands, he would hope for her forever.

 

Shame and anger pushed Sasuke to storm deeper into the forest before the ANBU could regroup and confront him properly. What he'd experienced through Kakashi was the kind of love he knew Sakura craved and the intensity of feelings he knew he could never give her. As he sprinted through the trees, he felt the rage simmer again within him— not for the unconscious man he left behind, but at himself.

 

It wasn't jealousy, per se. There was definitely disappointment and frustration. Guilt was there, too. The now unshakeable feeling that none of this would've happened if he'd just owned up earlier to his limitations as a husband and family man. It was never voiced but now it was there for all to see.

 

And Naruto had seen.

 

Though every fiber of his being screamed to keep running, Sasuke knew he couldn't just leave. Begrudgingly, he acknowledged that Kakashi was right about the bond that tied him to Sakura.

 

She truly was too important to just let go.

 

———

 

"Oh. Wow. That was…" Wide, pale eyes stared in amazement at the bracelets on Sakura's wrists. Ino had suspected they weren’t store bought, but never in a million years would she have imagined the story behind them would be so… "beautiful."

 

Sakura traced her fingers along the silver-white bands and smiled fondly. "It all just kind of… happened. Like, really slowly… then all at once."

 

"What will you do?"

 

A lump caught in her throat. "I don't know. Things are… I mean, it depends."

 

Ino sighed. "Sweetie, nothing you do depends on anything besides you. Just… think about what you want. Not anyone else. Just you."

 

Now it was Sakura's turn to release a long, trying sigh. "It's still complicated."

 

"But it doesn't have to be." Ino went over and pulled her friend into a fierce hug. "You're a good person with a kind heart. If we don't choose happiness, then what's the point?" She pulled back and forced green eyes to meet hers. It was important for Sakura to understand just how far she'd come emotionally and how okay it was to those who cared for her. More than okay felt wonderful for her. "He loves you. Hatake Kakashi! A man so aloof even his ninken don't know what he looks like beneath his mask." Ino lifted her friend's chin gently and smiled. "But you do."

 

Sakura turned away in embarrassment. She frowned and tried to focus on Sarada climbing over her toys. Ino stood beside her, watched Sakura distractedly run her fingers over the bracelets again, and smiled. "You know, I get it. I really do. Team 7 guys are some fine pieces of work once you get over their baggage. I thought I got lucky snagging one, but YOU…" she clucked her tongue.

 

Sakura crossed her arms over her chest, chuckled at the jest, and rested her head on her friend's shoulder. "Thank you."

 

Ino wrapped her arm around Sakura's waist and laughed. "Anytime, Forehead. I just CAN'T BELIEVE you kept something so juicy from me!"

 

They stood in amicable silence for a few minutes before a knock came at the door. Sakura answered and was surprised to see Hinata with a shy-looking Boruto holding her hand. "Hinata! How can I help you?"

 

The Hyuuga's lips pursed in a thin line. "I'm sorry to intrude," she began apologetically and picked her toddler up into her arms. "But I just saw Hokage-sama being admitted to the hospital. I didn't see you as one of the receiving medics so I thought I'd pass by and check if—"

 

Sakura didn't hear the rest. Pulse racing, she sped down the stairs of the apartment. As her feet touched the pavement, she heard Ino's voice call out from the balcony, "I'm just gonna make myself at home, yeah!?"

 

She stopped just long enough to wave and scream back, "Sorry!" Before disappearing around the corner.

 

———

 

Having an unconscious Hokage with only 'genjutsu' as an explanation and 'immediate attention' as an order was a very stressful way to start a shift for the receiving doctor. Initial inspection indicated severe trauma was causing breathing difficulties, but in such a way that was not immediately life-threatening. This posed a problem, as only the Hokage himself and his chief medic had the authority to remove his mask in such a medical situation, and defiance was a punishable offence.

 

Fortunately, the latter dropped in about an hour later. The doctor was relieved to pass the patient file to Sakura. As he led her to the private room with ANBU guards posted at the door, he tried not to stare too obviously at her unusually unkempt appearance— face flush from running, tired eyes, hair unbrushed, and wearing an oversized jounin uniform.

 

 Sakura entered the room alone and quietly locked the door. A sense of relief washed over her as her gaze fell on the exhausted but seemingly peaceful face of the Rokudaime. The curtains were drawn for privacy and the fluorescent light in the room dimmed. The only sound in the room was the slow and steady beeping of the heart monitor. Sakura pulled a seat beside the bedframe and brushed silver-white hair from her patient's face. "I warned you not to face him," she admonished softly as her fingers tried to smooth small frown lines from his temple.

 

She gave the room another scan to ensure they were alone before gingerly folding his mask down. She soaked a clean cloth with water and gently pressed it over his dry and chapped lips. She repeated the action twice more before folding the damp cloth and using it to clean his face and neck. When she was satisfied, she cut away the ruined mask and placed a solid-coloured oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.

 

Sakura suppressed a yawn as she closed her eyes and placed both hands over his chest. She pushed explorative chakra into his body and her expression twisted unpleasantly at the mess she found in his nervous system. Genjutsu-induced trauma. She inhaled deeply and transformed her chakra into the special kind of healing energy Tsunade had taught her, pushing it through his nerves and concentrating it in his mind and his chest. It would be enough to ease the bulk of his suffering and encourage immediate healing. She treated the inflammation around his recently mended ribs and increased his dosage of painkillers. A few solid hours of restful sleep could only benefit Kakashi at this point.

 

Sakura cupped his sleeping face lightly and pressed a kiss to his brow. If he'd been awake, he'd probably have said something about how strong she was, all the while downplaying his own situation. Because that was how Kakashi lead and inspired others— by saying things he believed until they believed it, too. Now it was her turn to do the same. "You're stronger than this," she whispered and slipped a hand over his. She yawned at last and let her head rest on his bedside. "Come back to me."

 

She closed her eyes. In the span of a few breaths, she too succumbed to much-needed sleep.

 

———

 

It was a little after noon when a knock woke Sakura from her slumber. She rubbed her eyes and stretched slowly, the muscles in her back and legs complaining immediately from the upright position she’d slept in at Kakashi's bedside.

 

“It’s lunch,” a voice spoke quietly behind her.

 

She tensed. "You shouldn't be here."

 

Sasuke stepped into her field of vision and placed his hand on the foot of the hospital bed. Not threateningly, but enough to provoke assent. "We should talk."

 

Sakura squeezed Kakashi's hand and held her breath as she watched nervously for some kind of response.  But the Rokudaime was out cold and remained unresponsive. She exhaled in relief and stood slowly. "Okay."

 

Her knees felt weak as she followed Sasuke to the hospital window and slipped out onto the rooftop. She took her place beside him as he stared at the newest carved-out face on the Hokage Rock. 

 

Sasuke looked grim. "How is he?"

 

Her gaze fell down to her hands and she rubbed a bracelet between her fingers. "You were too rough," she scolded quietly. "He didn't deserve that."

 

A dark eye narrowed at her semi-conscious action, very aware of the bands' significance. "And what," he began, not holding back on the strained and ugly tone in his voice, "do you deserve?"

 

In the daylight, Sasuke's face is weather-worn, handsome, and still completely unreadable to her. The careful blankness of his expression while his tone dripped with menace made her bristle with annoyance. Green eyes flashed up at him, certain and defiant in her answer. "Happiness."

 

Sasuke's fist clenched white at his side. "Happiness?" His face contorted with intense and barely-restrained jealousy as he turned to confront her properly. "With him?"

 

Sakura had heard more than her fair share of mocking over the last few weeks. Most were still because of her continued loyalty to the man standing before her. The irony of Sasuke directing a similar sneer at her was simply too much.

 

"With YOU!" She screamed, exploding with long pent-up frustration and shoving him so hard that— despite Sasuke blocking with his arm —he stumbled backwards. "It was always supposed to be YOU!" Her whole body trembled with anger and grief as she choked back a sob. "…but you didn't want me. Not in the way I needed you to."

 

Sakura turned away then, squeezed her eyes shut, and pressed her palms hard against her temple. If she looked at him now, she'd break like glass.  She focused on her breathing and slowing her racing heart to something resembling normal.

 

Sasuke watched her with narrowed eyes. "Being with him changed you."

 

She shook her head in disappointment and a bitter sound left her lips. "I changed me. He was just the first to notice."

 

A cold hand grabbed her wrist and twisted her around forcefully. Sakura's eyes widened as she looked up to unguarded anger, desperation, and anguish. For the first time ever, she sees fear in his eyes.

 

"What are you saying?" he seethed.

 

Sakura shifted uncomfortably in his grasp. "Let me go."

 

"Is that what you want?" he asked, his expression shattering. Sasuke's grip on her wrist loosened.

 

"YES," she snapped and yanked her arm away. Sakura was furious. "I needed YOU. Really NEEDED you to be here and... show you cared. But you never did."

 

Sasuke looked startled again. He stared and blinked at her until his own fury fell under some semblance of control. "Tell me," he half-growled as he strained for calm, "how staying wouldn't have hurt you more."

 

Sakura frowned. "I..." this time, it was her turn to look uncertain.

 

He nodded, feeling for the first time like they were reaching an understanding. "I apologize. All this time, I thought I was protecting you."

 

Sasuke wasn't stupid. Naruto may have saved him all those years ago but he knew, even though he'd told her more than once that she had nothing to do with his sins, that Sakura held his redemption. That she would always be the future he didn't think he deserved.

 

He bowed his head and stepped back. "I don't need a keeper," he murmured with a regretful tone, "but I do… care about you."

 

Something sparked behind green eyes. "You could show it better."

 

"I know," he swallowed. Admitting to weakness is difficult. "I’ve wronged you. I believed you’d always just... be." Mine was implied. Sasuke never imagined he could ever lose her.

 

Their gazes met and tears welled up in Sakura's eyes. "I am."

 

"And Kakashi—?"

 

"Is different." Sakura reached over and held his hand reassuringly as the tears flowed. She, too, was starting to understand. "All I ever wanted was to be someone close to you. Loving you was the only way I knew how and I thought… if I loved you enough… you'd become the man I always thought you could be."  She wiped at her tears and closed the distance between them. "But I was wrong to want to change you. And I broke my own heart with the idea of you."

 

A dark eye stared at her for a long moment. The same self-certainty he'd seen in Kakashi's memories, even as tears flowed down her cheeks, now chipped away at his own defenses. Though he would never openly admit it, the steady warmth and affection of her gaze makes Sasuke waver.

 

"We could start again," he offered quietly. They did it once, after forgiveness and trust were regained, and love had blossomed.

 

His expression looked sincere and Sakura allowed herself to be momentarily tempted by it. "We could," she agreed. "But you said it yourself— you're still you and I'm still me. The result would be the same."

 

Sasuke frowned. "Then… what can I do?"

 

Sakura thought about it for a long moment. Then a genuine smile slowly graced her face. "Let me love you the best way I know how."

 

He raised a single brow. "And that is?"

 

"By letting you go," she breathed out.

 

Sakura stepped around him and pressed herself flush against his back. She buried her face into his cloak and wrapped her arms around his chest. "I've spent most of my life reaching for you, like this, hoping you'd look back and let me stand beside you."  She loosened her hold just enough for him to turn and look down at her warily. "But this is where I'll probably always be and… that's okay."

 

She cupped his shadowed face with one hand and reached up on tip toes to kiss his cheek. "My place is here where I have your back. Just as I know yours, for now, is out there."

 

His gaze softened at the Will of Fire burning steadily behind green eyes. "Sakura."

 

She smiled at him sadly. "Maybe later, when we're a little older and wiser, we'll find a way to fit into each other's lives again."

 

"But not today," he conceded with a small smile.

 

Another tear rolled down her cheek and she nodded. "Not today."

 

They stared steadily at each other as understanding, gratitude, and mutual affection passed unspoken between them. But there was still one thing that needed voicing. Sakura sucked in her bottom lip and turned her gaze away in embarrassment. "So, Kakashi…?"

 

Sasuke chuckled under his breath. "I could never think of anyone as deserving of you." He lifted his head and nodded towards the Rokudaime's face on Hokage Rock. "But my eyes see the truth no matter how much I wish otherwise." His face looked pained as he glanced sidelong at her with both eyes. "You love him."

 

For a moment, Sasuke wore an expression that dared her to deny it— even hoped she would.

 

Her eyed widened and her lips parted to speak, but she remained silent in the end. His gaze fell to his feet and he swallowed his disappointment. Silence passed between them and after a while, Sasuke rubbed his temple and sighed. It had been inevitable, he supposed, that she'd find another. Sakura was too kind, too generous with her heart to not have found a more willing recipient of her love. The fact that it was Kakashi, however… “You could’ve chosen worse,” he murmured.

 

Sakura's ears burnt with embarrassment. “It wasn’t really a choice," she half-chuckled and half-cried. "Anyone else would've alarmed Naruto, and Kakashi…” her cheeks tinted further with speaking his name, "…is probably the only one crazy enough to take you both on."

 

She looked down feeling flushed as Sasuke studied her carefully. It was clear the woman before him was a far cry from the Sakura he’d left behind so many months ago. She was spirited, self-assured, and brimming with hope. She was the closest to the Sakura he’d first grown to love all those years ago.

 

Sasuke realized then, as she shyly returned her gaze back up to him and smiled, that there was still a way to make things good between them again. He took a deep breath and sighed.

 

"He's a mess without you, but I'm not." This was the elemental difference between his feelings for her and Kakashi's: Sakura was earth to Sasuke, the one that grounded him and provided a steadfast, constant place to call home. But to Kakashi, she was the very air he breathed.

 

His words stirred disquiet in her and she shifted uneasily. “What are you saying?”

 

His lips thinned and tightened as he stared at her. She would be loved the way she deserved to be loved, but that didn’t make what he'd have to do any easier. "If he…" he grimaced with clear discomfort. "If he makes you happy, I won’t be the reason for your tears anymore."

 

Sasuke's jaw clenched of its own volition. There would be no further elaboration. He was offering to sacrifice some of his own pride and feelings for her happiness, but he couldn't honestly say by how much.

 

Fear of her response reflected briefly in his expression.

 

Sakura slipped her hand into his and squeezed in gentle reassurance. "Let's figure our happiness out together."

 

———

 

The days in the village pass relatively quiet while the Rokudaime slept. This is a small relief for Sakura, as it allowed her and Sasuke some flexibility to build on their fragile but hopeful new dynamic. While they could never— because of Sarada, the clan rules, and their long history —be just friends, a somewhat protective brother-and-sister-like bond bloomed.

 

Simply being seen out together was enough to smother (or at the very least, confound) the village gossip surrounding the mysterious circumstances of the Rokudaime's hospitalization.

 

Sitting next to Sasuke at one of the sweet stalls near the village gate, Sakura leaned purposefully into his shoulder and eyed his food eagerly. With a long sigh, he passed his remaining dango to her. The slightest hint of a smile curved his lips as she beamed with joy. From across the table, Naruto watched them curiously and scratched his head. "So… you guys are good now?"

 

Sakura grinned, mouth full of dango, and glanced at Sasuke. "More or less," he responded.

 

Blonde brows furrowed. "But you're still leaving."

 

Sasuke nodded.

 

Naruto looked at Sakura incredulously. "And you're okay with it?"

 

She nodded slowly and added a demure smile.

 

The blonde rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a long moment before relenting with a shrug. "I don't think I'll ever get it."

 

Sasuke lifted his hand and placed it boldly over Sakura's on the table.  He looked at her knowingly. "You don't need to."

 

Naruto groaned. "And… Kakashi-sensei?"

 

"He checked out yesterday," Sakura replied evasively.

 

"But are you…" Naruto's face scrunched weirdly. "Are you and Kakashi-sensei…?"

 

Sasuke pursed his lips and looked away. Sakura blushed and pressed both her palms to her face in embarrassment.

 

"I don't get THAT either," the blonde sighed and slumped in his seat. Something sparked in his head then and a wicked grin slowly crept across his face. "Does he wear the mask when you, you know…" Naruto made a lewd hand gesture and earnt a hard kick to the shins under the table.

 

Sakura's face turned bright red as she fumed. "NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS."

 

The comical look on both their faces makes Sasuke burst into a rare fit of laughter. They stared briefly in awe before also succumbing to the infectious laughter, and for the span of a few perfect moments, everything is as it always should've been between them.

 

The laughter faded and Sasuke eventually pushed himself up to stand. He looked passively down at Sakura and offered his hand to her. She took it and allowed him to pull her up beside him.

 

"I don't know when I'll be coming back."

 

There is disappointment in her expression as her hand falls from his. Just because it was inevitable didn't make it any easier to bear. Sakura hugged herself and nodded. "Sarada and I will be here, waiting, ready to welcome you home."

 

She looked down at her feet and blinked back a tear. Sasuke reached over, ran his hand down her shoulder to her elbow, and pulled her gently towards him. He surprised her with a chaste kiss to her diamond-marked forehead.

 

"Stay safe," she whispered.

 

Sasuke stepped back and looked at her fondly as Naruto came to stand beside him. The blonde shoulder-bumped his oldest friend and slung the rucksack he'd dragged with him lazily over his other shoulder. "C'mon. I'll walk you to the bridge."

 

Sakura gives him a warm, reassuring smile before he turns to the road out of the village. They'd agreed there would be no goodbyes.

 

She stands still and watches as the two men pass the check at the gate. They both stop a few paces outside the village and look back in her direction. Naruto waves while Sasuke stares with what she'd later swear was the hint of a smile playing on his lips.  She waves back, smiling and blinking back emotional tears, until they resume their journey.

 

When they are all but specks in the far distance, Sakura senses a familiar presence approach her from behind. She recognizes the slight limp in the footfall as he steps casually up beside her with hands shucked in his pants pockets. A small grin tugs at the corner of her lips. Without looking, she slid her hand into his nearest pocket and intertwined their fingers.

 

A gentle squeeze, then her hand is lifted out and up to masked lips. Sakura turned, surprised by the publicly revealing gesture, and looked up at smiling grey eyes.

 

"Hey."

 

Her heart leapt into her throat and, for the first time, she felt safe enough to fall into warm, grey pools and bask in the hopeful, wondrous future they beheld.

 

"Hi."

 

———