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A Marriage Inconvenienced

Chapter Text

The truth of Kakashi's genius was not given enough consideration. Yes, people spoke of him in reverent tones and yes, he had the respect of every ninja in the village.

But people forgot what it meant to be promoted for him to be promoted as a jonin at the age of thirteen. Instead, they focused on the sordid fact that his first mission as team leader resulted in the death of his teammate. They focused on the eye he received and his reputation from it.

He had copied over one thousand jutsu, had his name in the Bingo Book for years and survived ANBU psychologically (mostly) intact. Teaching genin wasn't his strong point, but it was his duty as an elite ninja to show them what he knew.

He never wanted to waste his time with idiots and he took great delight in failing several groups as he waited for the right one. By the time Team Seven had finally passed the bell test, he had several years of easy missions. The fight with Zabuza sent a clear message, warning him that he had become too comfortable. He would have won the fight quickly with he had been fifteen. He was Kakashi, the Copy ninja.

Except that he wasn't.

His summons weren't cats; they were dogs. The pack was loyal and determined, just like him.

Kakashi was given the eye as a present from Obito and he respected it. He used it to his advantage and mastered it better than most Uchiha. And when they were busy calling him a copy cat, they forgot he was smart. Most people didn't realize that the Sharingan was holding him back.

It was the bloodline trait of the Uchiha, and Kakashi was not related to them, even distantly. His grandfather had moved to Fire Country from Lighting and his mother was from Mist. The eye from Obito had no business in his head and it had every reason to reject his body. And it would have, if it weren't for the fact that he was a genius. People didn't speak of his father after that failed mission, so by the time Kakashi left ANBU many they had forgotten about the White Fang's adaptive chakra, which was matched only by his skill and intellect.

The day Rin placed the eye in Kakashi's head was the day that half of his chakra was reserved to keeping the eye from dying. It was difficult adjustment and he was exhausted quickly at first. But Rin showed him some tricks on how to mold small amounts of chakra for maximum impact. And as the years passed, the eye sucked more and more chakra from his body. But it was a gradual process and his body adapted accordingly.

He copied jutsu after jutsu. Sand, wind, water, he took all that he could. But he was talented, and Kakashi was not satisfied with the mimicry of the eye. One day the eye could die, or it would be too much of an inconvenience and he would be useless. So, he memorized them as well, a wealth of fighting techniques hidden in his brain.

Kakashi couldn't stand the Uchiha Clan, and it was not a grand surprise that they were massacred. The premier clan of Konoha had not been very discreet with their plans. Kakashi despised politics, and avoided them whenever possible. And most let him be, because he did not have a family. It was a conscious decision on Kakashi's part, a desire to avoid clan pompousness. While Kakashi believed in love, he had been a shinobi for a long time. He had been asked to fight, assassinate, and seduce for years; sometimes at the same time. He learned to compartmentalize his feelings like most ninja. It wasn't long before people were calling him aloof and anti-social.

But with the Uchiha gone, Kakashi was aware that the village suffered a massive hit to its defenses. And so, Kakashi began to think of raising a family of his own, a loyal one to Konaha, just like his summons. He considered the situation carefully and decided it was acceptable but not necessary. If a situation arose, or if there was a desperate need for future generations he would take the appropriate steps. And so he waited.

Then he could smell war in the air, especially since Akatsuki with their sights on Naruto. He knew that the village would be extremely vulnerable after the war. (Although he was would be astonished by the damage.) Provided that he lived; he needed to have children for the future of the village. His team of genin split for their own adventures and he began to hone his skills once more.

Kakashi would admit that it was a certain amount of elitism that prevented him from settling down. He was not interested in coddling a woman, he wanted someone he could accept his duty to the village. That narrowed down most of his choices to kuniochi. While he wasn't sexist, few matched his expectations. Kurenai had shown potential, but the eyes she made towards Asuma eliminated that possibility. Time passed, and he grew concerned that he only plausible option would be Anko.

Then Sakura opened the ground with her fist.

 

Five Years Later…

"So the transition went smoothly?" asked Tsunade.

"Yes, all of the tailed beasts have been returned to their respective countries," replied Kakashi tiredly. "Can I go home now?" He frowned. "Do I have a home now?" he mused, wondering what had happened it his long empty apartment.

He had been gone for two long years, traveling to each of the countries as an emissary after the war against the Akatsuki. He traveled with ninja from every village, each country placing one elite member in the team to smooth out the tensions. It could be a dangerous mission for an enemy ninja to travel to another country, and with so many of the countries hurting, no one was very interested in entering a war.

Kakashi was a fairly unflappable man, and his patience made him ideal. He got along with all of the ninja he traveled with and they became odd companions of sorts. The leaders of the country were another matter, so he would often introduce himself with a threat.

"Kill me and the Hokage will release a scroll of your prized jutsu to everyone other village," he had said as he gave them a respectful nod.

Unsurprisingly, he made it home intact.

"Excellent. Now that you are back I can make you Hokage, the relationship that you have established with the other countries will ensure a level of peace. Most of the large problems have passed and I can get out of this damned room."

"Except for Sasuke," replied Kakashi.

Tsunade frowned. "I said most. At any rate, I had little involvement with the Uchiha debacle, and I have no interest in it. If you wish to resolve that on your time, it will be up to you. I'll announce the post in a few months to give you an adjustment period and then it's all yours."

"I will be honored…" Kakashi said respectfully, as he eyed the stack of paperwork "if you didn't leave all of that for me."

Tsunade gave a sharp smile. "Dismissed."

*******

Kakashi walked around the village and said hello to everyone. Well, it was really more of a nod. His things had been put into storage during his mission, but had been unpacked into an apartment with the news of his return. The new place was larger, and more comfortable than his old one, and they even did Kakashi the favor of removing that questionable stain on his couch.

That night he went to the bar to see the familiar faces. Most of them welcomed him back, and were keen to regale him with stories of past missions and free drinks. Gai was halfway done with a story on an enchanted waterfall in Mist Country with Kakashi heard an unexpected voice.

"Kakashi! Is that you?" He turned his head to see Sakura as she walked his direction. "You're back!" Her face was alight with joy as she reached down to give him a hug.

"Sakura, you look lovely," Kakashi replied politely. His nose caught the perfume of her soap even amid the smoke and alcohol in the room. She pulled back from him with a slight blush on her cheeks.

"I'm glad you are here again," she said. "I thought Tsunade was crazy to send you on that mission. I was certain that the other Kages would have killed you because you are so annoying."

"You wound me," he replied in a dry voice. She laughed and waved him a goodbye, disappearing amid the crowd. Kakashi contemplated on her as he took another drink from his glass. He probably should make a move towards her now that she was an adult. Now that he was going to be Hokage, he didn't have to leave the village every week. Children would be a different type of challenge for him to work on. He could see her profile reflected on the bar mirror, and congratulated himself privately on a good choice.

Genma turned to him. "Did you hear the news about Sakura? She's going to marry the daimyo's son." The man shook his head with a mischievous smile on his face. "One has money and a title while the other has beauty and power. That's going be on hell of a family if you ask me."

Kakashi choked on his drink. 

Chapter Text

It wasn't too difficult to learn of Sakura's engagement, as it was one of the most talked about things in the village. For Kakashi, there was a bizarre sense of irony: if he had arrived only a week earlier, the situation could have been entirely avoided. Once again, he had arrived too late, although it had little to do with his own habits and more to do with the Kage's tendency to be long-winded. Lightning Country's had been especially loquacious, as he believed to have found a mutual friend interested in the history of tapestry. The man never realized that Kakashi's replies of hmm... and really, and how interesting, were long honed skills from ignoring people while he read porn.

It was an arranged marriage of sorts. A few months back, Tsunade and several other ninja went to visit the daimyo of Fire Country, Kichirou Ehime. The daimyo's son Norio was quite entranced by Sakura's beauty, which only grew more appealing when he discovered that she was the Hokage's apprentice. It was rumored that he lobbied for his father's approval for several months for her hand in marriage before the man relented.

Norio also made a plea to her parents and the Hokage for their approval as well. Tsunade thought it was an odd request, and many thought that she would balk at Sakura giving up her growing reputation as a kunoichi for a status as a symbol and a baby maker. However, some argued that the romantic in Tsunade, the part of her that still loved Dan every day when she woke up until she collapsed into bed, was quite pleased.

Sakura's parents had been thrilled; as civilians they had difficulty understanding the drama of Team Seven, her role as a ninja, and her frequent missions. But being wooed by a Lord for a life of prosperity was simple and impressive.

Kakashi supposed that had been the tipping point for Sakura. He could recall quite clearly her giggles and squeals when Sasuke threw a kunai, with her hopes that the boy would fall in love with her. While he didn't believe that Sakura still pined for Sasuke, he believed that her sense of romanticism had remained intact. Perhaps it was more realistic now, but having a courtship by a rich man half a country away had appeal. Kakashi would admit that Sakura could do worse.

But she could also do better.

It was for this reason that Kakashi had not shrugged his shoulders and moved on. The idea of her as his wife had been in his mind for five years. It was an uncomfortable thought at first, but with time he had grown accustomed to the idea, until a bit of possessiveness had grown.

What's more, Kakashi had gone on enough missions with her and would hate to see all the hard work she had placed into her skills to see them go to waste. He had how proud she was of her skills and tossing them away didn't seem to fit her character.

As a strong-minded and outspoken person, Sakura was an excellent ninja. However, these were traits that were rarely valued in daimyo's wives. And then there was the issue with the Ehime family. Kakashi had known the family for years, and was quite familiar with the world Sakura would enter.

When he was a child, he had been placed on a long-term mission at the household. This was before the arrival of the war when he was still young. Because of the amount of money the Ehime family provided, the Hokage deemed it appropriate to have some measure of security over them. Kakashi had assumed the position of a relative and was able to travel with the children to protect them when a more experienced ninja protected the daimyo.

Kakashi spent most of his years as a chunin on that mission, derailing several attacks while the children played in the gardens. Eventually, the attacks stopped as every soldier was called to the front lines and Kakashi was removed. But it wasn't the last time he worked with the family either, his extended time in that mission made Kichirou Ehime fond of him. Many times the daimyo would ask for him personally, especially when discreet assassinations were required or delicate cargo needed an escort.

Then there was the matter of the heirs themselves. The eldest was a daughter named Mitsuko who had long since married. Most of Kakashi's memories of her included him crouched in a shrub as a secret bodyguard while wealthy businessmen were courting her. The eldest son was three years older than Kakashi whose name was Tomio. They had gotten along well as children; Kakashi's chunin status made him more mature in some respects. They had been close friends for a time.

However, Kakashi had not expected to be confronted by him for a kiss in a dark hallway when he was eighteen. He had, rather foolishly, returned the kiss because he didn't quite know how else to react. It was later that Kakashi had realized his mistake and had the awkward situation of explaining that he wasn't interested. Tomio had been mortified, and their casual friendship had declined in the passing years.

Norio on the other hand, had been extremely jealous of Kakashi as a child, fearful of his presence and the attention given. The acrimony faded when they grew up, but it always lingered, springing up anytime the daimyo made a favorable comment about Kakashi.

If Kakashi were to seek Sakura's hand in marriage this he would have to be extremely careful in not damaging the already established relationship with the daimyo. It could be a disaster otherwise. Kichirou might like him, but Kakashi thought the daimyo would not be pleased if he stole Norio's betrothed. Particularly since the eldest son, Tomio, had little interest in bearing the family heirs. Part of Kakashi, (the lazy part) thought it would not be worth the time and effort to chase Sakura.

Still, he had grown comfortable at the idea of Sakura as his wife ever since she proved her determination and strength. Kakashi certainly thought he owed Sakura an earnest attempt. And while he didn't necessarily love Sakura, he could think of several things more awful than marrying a talented, powerful woman with a temper. The only other option was Anko, and he could think of several things more awful than marrying a talented, powerful woman with a case of schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, most of those things involved thumbscrews.

The first time Kakashi saw Sakura properly after learning the gossip was when he saw her through the restaurant window. He wouldn't have noticed her at all but her frenzied movements through the glass caught his attention. Sakura was working through lunch and she was half-hidden behind a stack of paperwork. Her cheeks were puffed up from the food in her mouth, her hair was askew, and there were dark bags under her eyes. He rubbed his chin in contemplation as he watched her choke on a piece of dango and frantically reach for a cup of water. Quite frankly, it wasn't a flattering image, and it nearly put Kakashi off of his quest to secure her as his wife.

On the other hand, Sakura was an elite kunoichi, and the odds of him finding someone to match her skills were very slim. He was also getting to the point were he could be the father of the females he evaluated, and that was not a path he wanted to go down. Kakashi would admit that he was a bit of a pervert, but he did have honor and respect.

"Can you believe that is the girl who will marry the daimyo's son?" said a female voice behind him. "I don't know what he sees in her, she's not even that pretty."

Kakashi belatedly realized that when he stopped in the middle of the street to look at her, he inadvertently brought other's attention to her.

"I know what you mean. That forehead makes her a bit ugly," said the other woman with her.

Kakashi frowned. That seemed a bit harsh; it was only noticeable if someone was searching for flaws. His eyes widened when he saw Sakura reach for another large chunk of food- it looked as if she was going to stuff the entire thing in her mouth. If word ever got out he was marrying a pink chipmunk, well, he didn't think he could live with himself. He gave the window a strong tap to catch her attention.

Sakura paused and turned to look at him around the paperwork. Kakashi took advantage of her attention, and tapped the bottom of his chin with his fingertips. Recognizing his silent action, her mouth snapped shut, and she began to take more demure bites of her food. The women, seeing that Sakura was no longer making a fool of herself, continued down the street.

Kakashi walked away from the restaurant annoyed with himself. He intended to walk inside the restaurant, mooch off her dinner, and help her with various reports. But when she turned to him he realized something. Kakashi had not talked to her in two years, and he didn't know how much she had changed since that time. There was nothing like a good, long, awkward conversation to discover hidden truths. Hell, he liked to cause awkward conversations.

But from what he could remember of Sakura, she had a temper. And if she discovered he was winding her up on purpose, he could kiss his genius marriage goodbye. Kakashi sighed in frustration. This sort of thinking was precisely why he avoided relationships for so long. If he was going to win Sakura over he needed a tactic. He turned around the corner of the street, and that was when he saw it.

The Thing.

It was a large arrangement of exotic flowers, so grandiose that the delivery men were having a difficult time getting it into the flower shop. He could hear a loud voice crying out from inside.

"Careful there, we have more customers than Forehead!" Kakashi frowned- he knew that voice, but he couldn't quite place it. His question was answered when he saw Ino exit the store. What an excellent opportunity. He sauntered over to her as she shooed the delivery man out of the store.

"What is that thing?" he asked as he walked into the flower shop.

"That," Ino said tiredly, "is the latest flower arrangement Norio Ehime sent to Sakura. He delivers them here because he knows that she will pick them up from the flower shop. With missions and all, there's no guarantee that she will be in the village when they come, so he can't deliver them to her apartment."

"Hmm…very interesting," Kakashi said as he wandered over to take a better look at the gift. It was large, ostentatious and impractical. The flowers would die in a few days. Norio didn't even have the sensibility to send her a potted plant.

"Does he send them often?" he asked Ino.

She shrugged. "Often enough. The first time it was kind of cool, you know? To think that someone was interested enough to send such a large arrangement of flowers across a couple of countries just for one girl. But now it's an inconvenience."

Kakashi snorted. Norio might think his show of money was sufficient enough but he completely failed to realize that this was Konoha. Ninja villages were different than civilians; for one thing, its citizens were more practical in nature.

"It must be extremely annoying," he said to Ino.

She rolled her eyes. "Yes. Not to mention that it doesn't even fit in her place, so I have no choice but to help her out to take it apart." She had already removed some flowers and stuck them in a separate vase.

"What do you think?" she asked as she showed them to Kakashi.

He looked at them seriously and nodded his head. "Well…" Ino leaned in to hear his words. "It looks like the sort of thing they would have at a clown's funeral."

Ino's face fell and she gave a moan of frustration. "It's hideous?"

"Oh, yes. I feel like tearing out my good eye." Kakashi responded cheerfully.

"Great," Ino said in an unenthusiastic voice. "It's always like this. Lots of strange flowers tossed together because they are expensive, and not because the look good together." She gave one of the offending flowers a glare.

"And what does Sakura think of this?" He asked evenly. It wouldn't do any good to hint Ino of his plans, the town would have a field day. But his words did not raise her alarm; he believed that it was a frequently asked question.

"Sakura doesn't say much about it. It's not like they know each other very well. They only met once and I think she's just relieved that he hasn't forgotten about her."

"Oh?" Kakashi was very glad he decided to stop by. Ino was incredibly forthcoming.

"Yeah. Kunoichi hear a lot of complaints for not being feminine enough. Most guys want a wife who will stay at home and always be there when they get home. But you wouldn't be a ninja if you did not have that edge. And Sakura's strong. Most guys don't like the idea of her being better than they are. She only had one boyfriend and he dumped her after they went on a mission together. I guess he botched part of it pretty badly and she had to save his ass. Good riddance is what I said, but she has not had a boyfriend since, and that was a year ago."

"Ah," said Kakashi. Sakura wasn't in love or impressed by Norio's title. She was just a little bit flattered and desperate. He could work with desperation.

"It's sad isn't it? She worked so hard to become a great ninja and now not a single man will let her be an equal. They want her to be a dutiful wife waiting hand and foot. She'll probably be doing that when she's at the daimyo's too, but at least she'll be rich. I don't blame her a bit."

Ino removed a pod plant from The Thing that looked a bit like male anatomy and wrinkled her nose, before she set it on the counter.

"Interesting," Kakashi replied, failing to keep the amusement from his voice. "But, it is a bit risqué for the public, you wouldn't want to give the grannies a heart attack."

Ino snorted. "I'm pretty sure it would give Sakura a heart attack. I'm sure that they will bloom in a few weeks into something really nice, but right now…" She gave the pod one more furtive glance before turning her back on them.

"Ino, would you like a bit of help?" Kakashi asked.

She gave him a glance of disbelief before she narrowed her eyes. "Yes, but I'm sensing there is more to this."

He smiled. "I want those flowers," he replied as he pointed to the pods.

Ino shrugged. "Fine, but don't blame me if you're accused of killing a couple of geriatrics."

~O~

The first thing Sakura noticed when she left the hospital was that Norio had delivered another set of flowers. There were several people carrying bouquets that were not native to Konoha. Sighing, she headed over to the Yamanaka Flower Shop, resigned that her evening would be filled with sorting out flowers. She was nearly there when her vision was blocked by a handful of oddly shaped pod plants and a gloved hand.

"Urk." Sakura wiped off some of the pollen around her nose and looked up to see Kakashi. "What are you doing?" She gave him a look of suspicion. She got along with the man, but she had a hard time believing that Kakashi was waiting for her. Excluding missions, the only time he ever talked to her was when he wanted something. Then again, the man rarely associated outside of his inner circle of friends. Sakura would have found the practice a bit annoying if she weren't so accustomed to his quirks.

Kakashi's redeeming quality was the respect given to him from other ninja and that tended to rub off on her. Of course, most people didn't know Kakashi was a bit of an ass. Sometimes he would put in a good word for her. If there was a mission she was eyeballing, it was more likely that she would get to go. There was one time a few years ago when she had plenty of cushy missions in villages filled with spas. She probably only lost the weight of those chocolates from all those visits to Rice Country last month.

Kakashi smiled, his eye curved in cheer. "Special delivery for Sakura Haruno from your husband-to-be." He held out the pods.

Sakura frowned in confusion before she took a good look at the plants. " Oh, my god ," she said in horror. "Put them away! Throw them away!" She could feel the embarrassment crawl up her neck and rise to her cheeks.

"I think he's trying to send you a message," Kakashi said pointedly as he refused to listen to her words. Sakura could see one of her neighbors about to round the corner, a grandmother who frequently asked her to heal the skinned knees of her grandson. When Sakura went off on missions, the lady tidied her place and had a meal ready for when Sakura came back. Sakura could kiss those free meals goodbye if she saw the perverted flowers, so she snatched the pods from Kakashi's hands and tossed them in a nearby bin.

"Hello Ms. Tokushima," she waved in greeting as she covered a rogue pod that peeked out with her thigh. The woman nodded in greeting, and when she rounded the corner, Sakura faced Kakashi. "Don't you have any shame?"

Kakashi looked at her blankly. "No. I thought you knew that. I know that two years has been a long time, but you shouldn't have forgotten. You were quite vocal about that in the past."

"What kind of plant was that anyway?" Sakura asked. She raised the lid to the trash can once more to see if she was hallucinating.

Nope.

" Manimpressivus Genitalius, otherwise known as the..."

"Liar," Sakura said with a smile before he could continue. There was no way Kakashi would have been able to resist teasing her over the flowers, and he probably came up with a long history of the pods that she didn't want to know about. She walked to her apartment, amused that he thought his made-up story was important enough to continue following her.

Kakashi frowned. "I didn't even get to the part where I tell you how they pollinate."

"I don't care."

"It involves a toaster."

Sakura's leg jerked mid-step. "What do you want?"

Kakashi shrugged. "Ah…. so eager to get rid of me?" Sakura said nothing, waiting for him to give up the information. "Very well. I wanted to remind you that it is very important to chew your food with a closed mouth. Women can be vicious, and I saved you from a good amount of embarrassment earlier today."

Sakura clenched her teeth when she heard that statement. "First of all, thank you for that. Second, you didn't need to bring that up. Third, the only time you ever come to me is when you want something only that I can give you. And even though two years have passed, I doubt you've changed that much. You're very persistent, which means that you won't drop it, and right now you are just stalling." She stopped at her apartment, and spun to face him. "I know you pretty well, Kakashi, so you might as well admit it. What do you want?"

Kakashi gave her an appraising look. "Are you sure you want to find out? It will make your life more complicated."

Sakura didn't say anything; she only raised an eyebrow in response.

"Ah well, can't say that I didn't warn you. What I want is you."

Sakura's face crumpled in confusion. "You want me to…?"

"No. I don't want you to do anything. Well, not right away. I just want you . "

Sakura gaped at him in shock. Surely this was some sort of joke? "I'm not sure what you are trying to say, but it's not funny Kakashi."

"I'm not joking. I'm very serious about this, Sakura."

She looked at him. While he wasn't as serious as he was in battle, he lacked the lazy slump that was a sign of his indolent attitude. Her brain felt numb and she desperately tried to think of something in response. "I'm engaged," she said, clinging to the obvious.

Kakashi nodded seriously. "I know. But you are not going to marry him. You're going to marry me ." He paused in thought. "And then have my children."

"Really?" Sakura felt annoyed by his presumptiveness. She clung on to that emotion, grateful that she could handle annoyance quite well. "You think you can make me change my mind? That I'll throw away the honor and opportunity for you?" She glared at him and gave him a poke in the chest.

"Yes."

"You're an idiot."

Kakashi chuckled. "No, if anything I'm quite the opposite. It's been a lovely chat, Sakura." He gave her a soft pat on her arm and walked away.

Sakura shook her head, and climbed up the stairs to get to her apartment. Honestly, she couldn't understand the man. He was probably only saying that so he could persuade her to do something else more easily. But a small seed of apprehension had begun to grow in her. She opened the door, and sneezed. Sitting in her apartment was vase, upon vase filled with flowers. Even her mugs were filled with short cuttings of plant life. Apparently, Ino had taken the opportunity and dropped off all of the flowers at her apartment. There was enough pollen in the room to give her allergies.

Sighing, she closed the door.

 

Chapter Text

He was haunting her.

She would turn a corner and see him enter a shop. As she crossed the village she would catch a flash of his distinctive hair color. Sometimes Sakura could smell the faint scent of his generic soap amid the antiseptics of the hospital. These things were figments of her imagination. Konoha was a small village and while she might not know everyone, it was inevitable that she would catch glimpses of him as she ran her errands. As for smelling him- well, that was simply her paranoia.

So it was with some relief when she received a mission for the next week to the border of Fire Country. In recent years, there were a series of viral outbreaks when spring arrived. It was a plague of unknown origin, causing a number of varying symptoms, with the most common being a sudden high fever. It would then go under a period of dormancy before killing the host. Sakura believed this was one more thing to blame on Akatsuki, more than likely devised by that weird plant guy before he was killed by Leaf ANBU.

She had just set foot in the village where she was to establish her vaccination post when she was accosted by Naruto. "Sakura!"

She gave him a squeeze only for him to poof into nothingness. "Bunshin," she muttered in exasperation.

Not an hour later, the real Naruto arrived, sheepish but cheerful. Well, not entirely. There was a strain to his smile that Sakura found unnatural. She knew he hadn't been the same after that conflict with Akatsuki; some of his enthusiasm had mellowed. That was what had driven him to the border of Fire Country. Some of the smaller villages without protection had been demolished during the fight against the enemy ninja. Naruto helped rebuild some of the villages that had been damaged in the battles and plant some fields of rice. But for the most part he loitered around, with his kage bunshin, keeping others safe.

Alone.

So with this in mind, Sakura had lunch with him. And as determined as she was to keep her secret from everyone, she knew that it was inevitable she would spill it when she saw Naruto's strained smile.

"Kakashi asked me to have his children the other day."

Naruto blinked, and then a true smile grew on his face morphing into a genuine laughter. It was a wonderful sight. Then he had to ruin it by talking.

"Which position did you guys do…"

One of Sakura's chopsticks snapped in her hand. "Naruto," she growled in warning.

"I'm sorry." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, but Sakura could tell that he wasn't sorry. "It's just that Kakashi's about as sexual as a tree log."

Her anger dissipated and she giggled. "I know what you mean. It was really weird. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't heard the words come out of his mouth." She popped a piece of her food in her mouth with her lone utensil. "Maybe if I'm lucky he will forget about the whole entire thing. I am engaged after all." Naruto scowled. "What?" Sakura asked suspiciously.

He wiggled in his stool. "Well…you spent so much time training to be the best. And now you are going off to marry this guy that you barely know and I won't see you anymore."

"You can still visit me."

"Yeah, but it's not the same. We won't be going on missions and are forced to eat burnt rice in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead it will be me and you talking in whispers as we sip imported tea. At least with Kakashi you would still be here. Well, not here, " Naruto said as he looked at the rickety stall. "In Konoha, where you belong."

Sakura sighed. "Not everyone can be like you, Naruto. I want to move on to different things. Are you going to take that away from me?"

He shook his head. "No. I just wish…"

"Yeah, I know." They ate the rest of their meal in silence listing to the humming of the cook a few feet away.

~O~

Kakashi saw a flash of pink dart over him, heading over to the direction of the Hokage Tower. He stared in that direction long after she left, while a part of him itched to go after her. Sakura had not taken the news of his intentions well- a highly disappointing reaction. As a result he decided to let her mull over the thought for a few days. There had yet to be any word on her wedding date, so there was still a sufficient amount of time.

His stomach gave a loud grumble and he turned sharply in the other direction to the food district. Kakashi was never one to ignore the call of his stomach. He found Genma, Raidou and Anko at one of the first restaurants. He promptly helped himself to some food from a plate as he pulled up a stool.

"Well, if it isn't the man of the hour, the great Peacemaker himself," Genma said. He waved to the cook for another plate, knowing that his food was already lost.

"Is that what they are calling me now?" Kakashi asked mildly.

Raidou spoke up. "Rumor has it that the trip you went on was a major success in keeping the treaties. War isn't in the air anymore."

Kakashi fleetingly recalled how he was almost blackmailed by Rock Country's daughter. If they knew how close… but they didn't and he wouldn't say a word.

"Yes, well- It wasn't as hard as some people might suggest. There was a ninja to represent every country, and we traveled together to visit every country. People believe that it was a difficult mission, when in actuality was fairly simple. As long as we didn't kill each other, the mission would be a success. Considering we all wanted to live…" Kakashi trailed off with a shrug.

Genma rubbed his chin in thought. "You know, I think you owe me money from ten years ago. Do you think you can use some of that reputation of yours to pay me back?"

"No, I don't owe you money. I have no idea where you came up with that," Kakashi replied in feigned ignorance. It wasn't true. He had used that money to buy himself a pair of new couches. That couch had served him faithfully for eight years. Then he received that two year mission and he ended up giving one of the couches to Genma, so it evened out anyway. But if Genma knew, he would probably call out that tried and true method to get more money, charging interest.

They continued to talk more, saying a few words here and there in between bites. Genma and Raidou left first, having an appointment somewhere, leaving him with Anko.

There was a cagey smile on her face, one that usually preceded a story that was sadistic or perverted. And on not so rare occasions, both. Kakashi made himself comfortable in the chair.

"So you know what I found the other day? Now I wasn't looking for this, I want you to know. It just so happens that Shiranui," she made a face of distaste, "threw away one of my magazines outside of the sandal repair shop. You know the one?" Kakashi nodded. "Well, that magazine was incredibly important to me. Not only does it have an article on the herbal uses of rosemary, but it highlights my profile in the Bingo Book."

Kakashi made a noise of understanding. Anko's profile stood out in the Bingo Book as one of the most colorful. That was saying something considering the company of top ranked ninja that she stood alongside. Then again, it did mention her tendency of using a herd of porcupine as a weapon.

"So, I'm getting mad right? I've been up and down the streets looking in trashcans for this magazine and then I find it." She smiled smugly.

Kakashi blinked. "That's it? I thought there was more to the story."

Anko rolled her eyes. "Don't be impatient, Hatake. I wasn't talking about the magazine. I was talking about these pods…"

Ah. It was just his luck that the most salacious female in the village would encounter the sex pods. He listened to Anko as she went into graphic detail on how the plants were shaped, complete with hand gestures and hip movements. Kakashi averted his gaze to retrain his composure, half amused and half embarrassed by her antics. Unfortunately, his eye caught her reflection in the mirror.

It looked as if she was having a fit.

He turned to her once more to catch the tail end of her story.

"…and when I found the magazine I took the pods home."

"Did they bloom yet?" He asked in curiosity, wondering what the flowers actually looked like. Kakashi also wondered why he had rejected Anko so flippantly. She might not be the ideal mother, but he was hardly the ideal father. All it would take would be a well-placed rumor that she would jump at the challenge.

"Don't be stupid. I chopped them up and fed them to Hebi."

Oh, that's right , Kakashi thought in resignation, Anko was insane. Plant emasculation aside, there was Anko's unfortunately named pet rabbit. Hebi had been around since Kakashi had known her, and it had the strange quality of changing color and from male to female. So Hebi was either imaginary or a twenty year old, tri-colored, hermaphrodite bunny.

He cleared his throat, trying to ignore the sharp smile on her face. "Interesting. Well, I need to be on my way now." He made a hand motion as if he was looking at his watch.

Anko frowned in disappointment. "All right, see you later, Hatake."

As he left the shop, he saw Sakura on the rooftops again, this time carrying a large bag. He sighed when he realized she must be going on a mission, and he would have to postpone the talk longer than he'd like. There was some good that came from his talk to Anko, and it wasn't just that he preferred Sakura because she was less insane. Both were aggressive females, notorious for their tempers. Both were accomplished jonin, and both were admired for their beauty. But there was something in talking to Anko that made him uneasy. Every conversation felt like work.

Anko planned her words very carefully, saying things that she knew would provoke reaction. It only intensified when she was around him, as if his normal unflappable manner was an affront to her existence. As a result, his lack of reaction led her to say and do things more lascivious than normal.

In other words, Kakashi's mere existence encouraged her insanity.

But talking with Sakura was easy; her reactions were completely natural and sincere. There wasn't a contest in their conversation. Even when she was plotting something, he could see the little wheels in her head turning. Sometimes he would do something completely unexpected to surprise her, and at other times he would let her continue with her little plot. The results never failed to amuse him, even when it was at his expense.

Kakashi hoped that quality had not changed in Sakura. With those concerns in mind, he went to the Hokage Tower, determined to find out what his favorite kunoichi had been doing during his absence.

He heard a loud crash behind him, followed by a bellow. Ah, Kakashi thought, Anko must have received the food bill.

A few hand signs later, and he was gone in a cloud of smoke.

~O~

 

Sakura's mission was fairly simple, albeit time consuming. After the initial plage outbreak, Tsunade had developed a medicine to combat it. It had to be updated every year to check on variations of the strain, but so far it was working. Sakura and the other medics had been sent to the villages to set up posts to inoculate everyone. There were other groups of ninja heading into neighboring countries to see the vaccine. Giving the villagers shots for a week would have been boring without Naruto's company, and Sakura was grateful that her friend stuck around. It was also helpful that he had visited most of the villages and was familiar with the people there. As a result, Sakura was given the most hospitable treatment possible and had access to the nearby hot spring free of charge.

So Sakura took her time, knowing that this mission was very much like a vacation. There weren't any ninja throwing sharp objects at her face, she could have dinner with Naruto every evening, and then settle in a hot spring.

When she arrived back to Konoha, she went straight to the hospital to report back, dumping her bag in her office. It didn't take her long, and a few minutes later she was out in the street looking for something to do. It was still early in the afternoon, so she made a stop at Ino's. She answered the door with her hair wrapped in a towel.

"Want to go shopping?" Sakura asked.

Ino moved from the doorway to let her in. "I'd love to, but I don't have any money. I just came back from a mission and the client didn't pay us. Something about me having an excessive attitude or something. I wasn't really paying attention. So I'll probably have to pick it up tomorrow."

"Don't tell me you spent the bonus you received on the last mission already!"

"Oh, it was well worth it." Ino grabbed Sakura's hand and opened the door to her bedroom. "Take a look at this bad boy!"

Sakura looked inside, finding nothing but a bed, a nightstand and a few random socks.

"Eh?"

"The bed! New sheets, pillows, mattress, the works! It's guaranteed to knock you out in one minute after lying down. It is designed to mold with the contours of your body, giving your back support. They say it makes you look three fourths your age." Ino waved her hands in exuberance.

"You want to look fifteen?"

Ino sighed. "That's not the point. The point is that I'll look thirty when I'm forty."

"Oh." Sakura frowned. She wondered what were the odds that Ino would be using the same mattress twenty years from now.

When Ino was finished dressing, they went to the Yamanka flower shop to check on things.

"Who runs the shop when you are away?" Sakura asked.

"One of my cousins. He's usually in the back ordering things. He's not bad at the front though. We get a lot more female customers when he's there. It's a bit insulting." Ino pushed the door open and held it for Sakura.

"Hello. Did anything big happen while I was gone?" Ino yelled over the crowd of females that circled the front counter.

"Excuse me ladies, but I have business to attend to." There were sighs of disappointment as Ino's cousin shooed them away and locked the door.

"Ino! Hmm… well, let me think for a minute. It was just the usual. The supply of lilies was a bit poor so the vendor gave us a discount for our next batch. The duo-colored roses should be in tomorrow. What else? Oh yes, I remember." Ino's cousin frowned in annoyance. "Why didn't you tell me about the monstrous flower arrangement that would be delivered here? I don't know who this Sakura Haruno is, but you should inform her that the Yamanaka flower shop is not a delivery post."

"One, Sakura is right here." Ino pointed over her shoulder. "And two, how did you not know about the flowers? Everyone knew! You don't live in a cave."

"I knew about the flowers, but I didn't know they were delivered here ." He took a good look at Sakura. "Are you her? Ah, that's right, the little girl from the Academy." He looked her up and down. "You are a bit older than I remember."

"That," Sakura said icily as she folded her arms over her chest, "was because I last saw you when I was nine."

"Yes, well…" He cleared his throat and turned back to Ino." I didn't accept those flowers."

"What?"

"Then where are they?" Sakura asked, shoving Ino out of the way.

"I sent them to your apartment."

Sakura's eyes turned wide. "But I was on a mission for a month!"

He shrugged. "They didn't come back; I assume that they found somewhere to leave them."

Sakura groaned. She hoped that she was not kicked out of her apartment because it was blocking the hallway. She had been gone for three weeks; it was possible the entire arrangement was rotted by now. And when a large stack of paperwork was plopped in front Ino, Sakura knew she was on her own.

So she went back to the hospital to pick up her bags and grudgingly went back to her apartment. As she approached, she noticed that her belongings were not scattered across the front. That probably meant that she had not been kicked out yet. And the hallway in front of her apartment was empty.

What if the delivery men asked the landlord to let them in? Sakura thought.

A pit of dread grew in her belly. There would be rotting flowers all over her couch. She stuck the key in the lock, shut her eyes and gave the doorknob a twist. She sniffed the air.

It smelled fine. This good sign led her to peek through one eye and then opened them properly. Empty. Her apartment looked normal and there wasn't a single inappropriate flower in sight. Sakura sighed in relief and thumped her bag to the corner of the room.

She flopped ungracefully on the couch, noticing that the tension building in her shoulders had disappeared. Really, flowers shouldn't give her that much stress.

Half an hour later she woke up to the smell of food. Ms. Tokushima was cooking next door. Stretching, Sakura crawled out of the couch and knocked on her door. For a civilian, the woman had an uncanny sense for knowing when Sakura returned from a mission. Either that, or she checked to see if Sakura's mail was picked up.

It wasn't long before she was eating, the grandmother clucking about Sakura's weight. It was tradition for the woman to chastise Sakura like this every time she came back, whether Sakura had been deprived of proper meals from the mission or not. Of course, Ms. Tokushima was no willowy person herself, so it was possible that the kind woman believed her words.

Sakura was washing the dishes when Ms. Tokushima answered Sakura's mystery.

"Sakura, you shouldn't have your flowers delivered here. I know you had them delivered somewhere else for a time, but it really created quite a bother when you were gone. I understand the circumstances, but the men from the other side of the hall wouldn't be so understanding."

"Yes, I know there was a misunderstanding at the delivery spot. I thought they would have been in my apartment but it was empty. Do you know what happened to the arrangement?"

"Oh yes. I wasn't here for the delivery; I suppose the landlord must have let them in your apartment. I don't know when it happened, but it couldn't have been more than a few days, not in this heat. I thought I was imagining the smell at first, but by the second day, there was no denying the stench." Ms. Tokushima had a sly smile on her face that grew as she continued. "But fortunately, I heard someone knocking on your door. A tall, handsome man with a very distinctive hair color, I've seen him with you before."

The food in Sakura's stomach felt a bit heavy.

"Well, he was very understanding when I told him you were out of the village. I don't know who he is but he must have been a jonin. He said he smelled the flowers even before I told him. And the nice man even offered to throw them away, so I let him in."

"Really?" Sakura didn't know how to feel about this. Kakashi never did anything unless he could get something out of it. Oh, crap. "Were you there?"

Ms. Tokushima shook her head. "I had to meet my grandson in the park later that day. And I knew that you were familiar with him so I wasn't concerned. Was that bad?" She frowned in concern.

"Oh, I was curious," Sakura shrugged in nonchalance. There was no way she was going to admit to Ms. Tokushima that she had given a giant pervert the privacy to ogle Sakura's underwear drawer without supervision. "I trust him, so it's not a big deal." She also knew where he lived, so she could bop him on the head if anything was missing.

That night, she slept uneasily, wondering what Kakashi had found.

~O~

Kakashi couldn't believe his luck when the Sakura's neighbor handed him the keys to the apartment. Getting rid of the giant flower arrangement was a bit of a pain, but a few well chosen jutsus made it easier for him than most people. Unfortunately, he didn't know one to get rid of the smell, so he popped open the windows.

And now, for his real work.

Going through Sakura's apartment was easy. She was an extremely organized person. This would go well with his own tendency of simple living, he didn't know what he would do if she was a pack rat. She still loved the color red, she liked her drinks simple, avoiding most flavored teas. She owned one romance novel, but the pages were still stuck together because she had not read it.

She loved photographs, and had various photos of her friends and family hung in the hallway. A quick peek into her bathroom revealed fluffy towels. Kakashi gave her shampoo a sniff and recognized the familiar scent of her. She had two drawers full of supplies for her medicine kit. Her undergarments ran the span of demure to risqué. She loved shoes though, and was loathed to throw a pair away, even keeping a pair of boots that had the heel broken off.

The picture of Team Seven was kept by her bed, just like his.

He hadn't been wrong, this marriage had to happen.

She was perfect.

 

Chapter Text

"Would you care to tell me what it is you are searching for?"

Kakashi looked up from the stack of paperwork to see Tsunade standing in the doorway.

"No," he replied bluntly, and turned back to the file that had caught his interest. He knew that quite a lot could change in two years. And Kakashi also knew that the rumors that had floated his way were largely incomplete and inaccurate. However, it was somewhat disturbing to look at the innocent file that lay open before him.

"Hmph, just because I've named you my successor doesn't mean you are allowed to take that tone with me, and I know you are lying." Tsunade entered the room fully, and shut the door behind her. "I can still make your life hell."

"That reply was a courtesy towards you. I know you won't be happy." Kakashi replied, staring at the conspicuous date of the mission report. The chair next to him moved and he looked up to see Tsunade's narrowed eyes.

"Your question is more likely to interest me than what I'm supposed to be doing. I can't believe that I came up with the idea to have my door open on Fridays. I thought some of my lazy ninja would use the opportunity to communicate mission reports without doing the paperwork." Tsunade pressed her hand against her forehead. "Instead, they use my open door for therapy treatment, and complain about everything they can think of."

Kakashi looked at her with pity, knowing that his findings were unlikely to give her the reprieve she sought." This file is incomplete."

Her eyebrow twitched. "I have no idea what you are talking about."

Kakashi scoffed. "Please, that excuse may work with half-assed shinobi, but I'm not an idiot. There's a very large hole in this story and I want to know the truth."

Tsunade leaned back in her chair. "Why do you care? The incident occurred a year ago. And don't try to explain it by saying that they used to be your students. There are dozens of files on them here, and I fail to see how this one is any more important than the others."

"It's not. Most people wouldn't be surprised and would swallow your explanation easily, and no one would care enough to investigate otherwise. However, most people don't know Sasuke. There is a reason the truth was covered up. I doubt it would be for Sasuke's benefit; you've never particularly cared for him. Which means it affected either Naruto or Sakura." He stared at her intently, waiting for a slight change in her face that might give her away. It appeared as a slight wrinkle at the corner of her eye.

"And you didn't answer my question. Why do you care?"

They both looked at each other, neither particularly willing to share the truth. Kakashi was certain that he could hold out longer than Tsunade, but he was also certain that truth had something to do with Sakura. Naruto had dealt with enough scandal and hardship in his life when he was growing up. There wasn't a single thing that Kakashi could come up with from the top of his head that could beat the nine-tailed fox hidden inside of a child.

This led to the reasonable assumption that the fake mission report concerned Sakura. And now that she was back in the village, Kakashi couldn't waste any more time. At any day he could receive the word that a date was set for the wedding, and after that he had a small window left. And odds that a scandal would break out would be higher every day that passed.

He had to move fast, and if meant letting Tsunade know, then so be it. "I care because it concerns Sakura. I'm going to marry her."

Tsunade smirked, clearly amused by Kakashi's confession "Oh really? This is the first that I've heard of it. The last I heard was her betrothal to the daimyo's son."

"Well, yes. It is a small inconvenience," Kakashi conceded.

Tsunade chuckled, her laughter growing louder as each second passed and ultimately burying her head in her arms to mute the sound. When she emerged, the smile on her face was wiped off as she noticed his impassive face.

"You're serious about this?"

Kakashi nodded.

"Sakura won't do it. She won't be interested in you. And she has already made a formal agreement with another man, and her sense of honor will let her keep the arrangement."

"I'm quite aware of that, but I am reasonably certain that I can turn her around." Tsunade continued to look at him with skepticism. "It's true. Do you want to bet on it?"

Tsunade looked at Kakashi sharply, and he noted the slight twitch of her jaw muscle as she clenched her teeth. He had said those words on purpose, all too aware of her weakness, hoping to ferret out the truth. Based on her reaction, she couldn't resist the bait.

He smiled smugly. "You need to tell me what is missing from this file. I'm not going to go into this marriage blind. I deserve better than that, and so does Sakura."

"If you break up the marriage between Norio and Sakura, Konaha will lose most of its funding," Tsunade warned.

"I'm aware of that. That is why I don't have much time. Once she is married, she is lost to me. I heard that your permission was asked for her hand in marriage as well as her parents. I can easily understand why her parents were excited about it. But the only reason you would have agreed with the arrangement was if you thought this marriage would be good for Sakura. She works well with the other people in the hospital, and Ino has informed me that her personal life is fine, barring an incident with her lone boyfriend. The only thing left are her missions, and the only file that fits is this one right here." Kakashi tapped the folder in front of him once more.

Tsunade huffed. "That's quite an assumption."

"It's not an assumption. It's reasoning." Kakashi was not going to allow Tsunade to convince him that his thinking was flawed. Her evasion was proof enough to show that something big had happened the previous year.

"You won't like it." Tsunade looked out the window, her shoulders slumped. "In fact, the truth will only show you how unlikely it is that Sakura will marry you." She turned to him once more, her face serious. "It's quite a shame. I've never contemplated the two of you together before. But now that you mention it, Sakura would have been good for you."

Kakashi swallowed, caught off guard by Tsunade's approval. He had expected to have a lengthy argument with the Hokage, but it appeared that there was another obstacle in his way. "What happened?"

"What else?" Tsunade replied with a sigh. "Her heart was broken."

~O~

Sakura frowned when she looked at the empty herbal cabinets. Someone had skipped their responsibility and not stocked the hospital with some of the required plants for remedies. If Tsunade found out, the whole hospital would pay for one person's laziness. Sakura flipped through the chart on the wall and scowled when she saw the name. Sachi was two years older than Sakura, and was still disgruntled that anyone of Sakura's age had made it to the chunin exams during their first year. Sachi was of the opinion that she should have been allowed in the chunin exams because she was older. It was slightly ridiculous to hold on to such a grudge, but that didn't stop Sachi from clinging on to it.

Sakura wouldn't be surprised if Sachi did this on purpose.

Sakura jammed the chart back onto the hook and slammed the cabinet door. As she walked away, she could hear the chart clatter off of the hook. Someone else could hang it back up; she had to go to the forest.

"Ick." The heat caused Sakura's shirt to cling uncomfortably to her skin. The day had not been so miserable in the forest; the trees provided her with much needed shade. But the last type of plant she required was located in the meadow, and the sun was high in the sky when she went to pick it. Sakura made a mental note to stop by the meadow first the next time she was forced to stock the cabinets.

Deciding it would be nice to cool off, she took a small detour to one of the training grounds with a lake. She still had to sort some of the plants when she arrived back at the hospital and prepare some medicines. The water wouldn't take too long to dry in this heat and Sakura could wipe some of the sweat from her body so she wouldn't smell so bad.

She flung her bag of plants to the ground, slipped off her sandals and hopped in, clothes and all.

"Ahhh," Sakura sighed in contentment. The water was cool in the heat and part of her wished she could stay in the empty training ground for the rest of the day. She did a few lazy backstrokes and an underwater weed wrapped around her ankle. Sakura dove down to remove the plant and when she poked her head back up, she noticed she had company.

"You're taking a shower in the lake. Does that mean you were kicked out of your apartment?" Kakashi looked at her from the edge of the water.

"Ha ha. I have to go to the hospital after this and wanted to wash some of the grime off. It's not like you haven't done it before."

"I haven't."

"Liar."

She saw his eye crinkle as he smiled, but he said nothing else. Sakura waited for him to continue, but Kakashi seemed content to let the silence linger. Normally, she would say something, but she felt childish and nervous around him now. She vaguely remembered having the same feeling she had when she first met Kakashi, nervous to impress her new sensei but she quickly got over it. That was the benefit of having Kakashi show up so late that first meeting. The nerves and excitement faded into annoyance, so she could see that even elite jounin could be flawed. It made her more comfortable around him, and just when her opinion of him would start to dwindle into nothingness, Kakashi would do something to show his reputation was well-earned.

Sakura thought that it was just another quirky trait of his, but now she was beginning to suspect that he did it on purpose.

If Sakura stayed in the water, there was no telling when he would leave and after a while it would become very obvious that she was avoiding him. Grudgingly, she climbed out of the water.

As she bent to pick up her pack, he spoke up.

"Have you considered my offer?"

Sakura winced and avoided his gaze by fiddling with the strap on her bag. "Not really. I mean, I don't hate you or dislike you and you're not ugly from what I've seen, which let's admit it's not much. Not that I'm that shallow either." She could feel his amusement growing and resisted the urge to smack him. "Don't laugh! You have to admit it is ridiculous!"

"I don't understand. What do you mean?"

Sakura looked at his serious face , unwilling to see the obvious. "You taught me how to walk on trees. I used to sit on your back when you did push-ups. The last time I went on a mission with you was two and a half years ago. And during that time you laughed at me because one of the village elders tried to set me up with his granddaughter."

Kakashi's face lit up with delight. "Ah, I had forgotten about that incident. I don't know what possessed you to cut your hair so short."

"I told you, Kiba made that stupid, drunken bet with Naruto that he could cut a strand of hair off my head." Sakura pointed a finger accusingly at him. " See? You don't even listen to me!"

Kakashi rubbed his hand over his chin in contemplation. "Well, to be fair, you were probably yelling a lot. Sometimes I tune you out because you have a tendency to repeat yourself. Not to mention I knew what happened when you mentioned the words 'Naruto' and 'bet.' Either that or I was too busy laughing at you."

Sakura squashed the urge to punch him. It seemed that reconnecting with Kakashi made me very angry lately.

"I don't understand why you just didn't grow it back," he continued, taking a step backwards.

"I did grow it back." Sakura tugged at her locks of hair. "But that takes time."

"I meant with a jutsu."

Sakura gaped at him. "There's a jutsu for that? And you didn't say anything?" Kakashi must have recognized her anger because he raised his hands in defense.

"I don't know one. But I figured you would know it because you're female. There are some kunoichi in the village who have used one, but it's rare."

Sakura covered her eyes with her hands, humiliated that she was only learning about this jutsu now. It was some consolation that Ino hadn't known either. A few months ago, Ino's hair dresser had lopped off a few extra inches, and Sakura had to listen to her friend moan about it for weeks. She felt Kakashi's hand pat her shoulder in consolation.

"Don't worry, you're not the only one with embarrassing stories."

She looked at him. "Even you?"

Kakashi ignored her question. "You're avoiding the topic at hand. You can't use the excuse that I was your teacher. First of all, that was eight years ago. Second, Tsunade taught you more than I did. Third, we are of equal rank right now. And fourth, it's sexy."

Sakura sputtered with disbelief. "Sexy," she repeated faintly.

"Yes," Kakashi affirmed.

The thought didn't seem to fit in her head, as foreign as Tsunade declaring a life hood of alcohol abstinence. So she moved on. "I haven't seen your face."

Kakashi cleared his throat. "It's sexy."

His repeated response caused her to let out a giggle. "Is that going to be your answer for everything?"

"It depends on what you ask. If you ask me my opinion of the sixth edition of the ninja handbook, I'm going to pass on that. But if you ask me what I think about you…" Kakashi drifted off as he took a step forward. Sakura instinctively took a step back, only to trip on a tree root protruding from the ground behind her.

She was saved from a rather ungraceful fall as Kakashi caught her wrists and tugged her forward, pulling her to him. Sakura let out a noise of surprise but their sudden proximity, instantly aware of the warmth and feel of his body against hers. Mortified, she pushed herself off of him.

She tripped on tree roots all over again.

This time Kakashi made no move to catch her and she landed with a thud on her bottom, before falling to her back.

There was a big, puffy cloud in the sky, shaped a bit like an arrow. As Kakashi stepped forward to give her a hand up, he stood directly beneath the cloud. Great , she thought, even the heavens were screwing with her mind.

"You shouldn't push me away, Sakura," he said.

The double meaning of his statement was not lost on her. She scrambled for another excuse as she straightened out her skirt. "You're old."

Kakashi looked extremely insulted. "I beg your pardon? Norio is only two years younger than I am."

Sakura blinked in surprise. "Seriously?" She had never contemplated Kakashi's true age before. The mask over his face made his age indefinable. She had always assumed he was twenty years older than her based on the degree of respect he received. Her protestations were growing thin and she was tired of arguing with him. "All right, you made your point. But I'm already engaged, so this discussion is a little pointless."

Kakashi smiled. "You're not married yet, which means I still have time to change your mind."

"I don't see why you are so determined for me," Sakura said perplexedly. "You come out of nowhere and say these things to me. I had to freak out a bit."

"It was not ' out of nowhere.' I've had my eye on you for quite some time."

Sakura shot him a look of alarm, uncertain what to say to that. Kakashi was descending into creepy territory she was not comfortable with at all. If he had been perving on her as a teenager she would knock the stuffing out of him, Arrow of Fate or not.

"What is that supposed to mean?!"

"I want children and a mother who can handle them. I want an intelligent, beautiful woman who can handle herself. I want the best. I've known for quite some time that you could be her."

Sakura flushed from his words, shocked by his confidence and possessiveness.

"I requested plenty of missions with you so you would get used to me. I even pulled a few favors to get you some missions that I knew that you would enjoy, like all of those missions to Rice Country. All of my annoying traits and quirks that drive people insane are things that you have become used to. You're inoculated against me.

"I left for two years because I had my duty to the village, but I knew you would be fine. You could take care of yourself and you don't need me hovering over you to give you advice. It was a risk that could lose you, that someone would see who you would become. But Tsunade is not the only one who gambles in the village. I was fairly certain that no one in the village would fully appreciate who you are, and I was right. You were too much for them."

He sighed, "Unfortunately, I hadn't counted on Norio finding out about you." Kakashi's jaw clenched in annoyance. "If those damned tapestries hadn't made me late, I might have made it in time."

Sakura snorted in laughter and then she let out a squeak of surprise. Kakashi's hand had snaked up the back of her neck to thread his fingers in her hair. He forced her to tilt her head up as his pressed his forehead against hers.

"See? I make you laugh. This could work," Kakashi muttered.

Sakura's heart gave a flutter; the plate of his headband was cool against her forehead. This was a strangely intimate position, devoid of any overt sexuality. He was winning her over with his compelling argument. Perhaps if Norio wasn't in the picture Sakura would have considered saying yes.

But he was, and that was that.

"Maybe it could work," she admitted. She drew away from Kakashi slowly, her body rebelling against the idea. "But maybe isn't good enough, Kakashi. Norio is a good man, he has power and money and he respects me. He spent months getting his father's approval and I can't dismiss that! You say I should pick you, but I really don't know that much about you either. I don't know your past."

With that she walked away, leaving Kakashi behind under the growing shade of the trees.

It took her some time to go organize the supplies she had gathered and by the time she left the hospital it was already dark. She made a mental note to find some way to get back at Sachi. The problem was that the woman was passive-aggressive, and Sakura was impatient.

She stopped at a food stall to pick up some noodles and sat on a stool. As she waited for her meal to cook, she laid her head against the counter. The surface was cool and it reminded her of Kakashi's headband pressing against her forehead. She could feel a flush creep across her cheeks.

Sakura thought that Kakashi would give up on his suggestion when she argued against him. That was how it used to be- he would relent to her wishes almost immediately. The only times that it hadn't happened was when it was something he felt was for the best. In those cases, his will was immobile as a mountain. He wouldn't let go of the idea and he would wear her down bit by bit.

There was a thunk at the counter as the cook placed her food down. "Is that all?" he asked.

"Yes, thank you," she said, handing over the money and heading to her apartment.

She could smell Ms. Tokushima's cooking that drifted in the hallway next door. Sakura's stomach gave a loud growl as she opened her door; perhaps she should have ordered more food. She placed her shoes at the doorway and padded to the kitchen in the dark. Sakura flicked on the kitchen light to rummage for a bowl. When she turned around, her stomach bottomed out as she noticed the unexpected gift on her table.

It was a single daffodil, placed inside of a thin red vase. A small slip of paper was tucked under it. Placing the noodles on her table, her other hand unfurled the note so she could read it.

Sakura shut her eyes in denial, and dropped the note unceremoniously on the table. Turning around, she took her noodles and placed them in the bowl and sat on her sofa. Sakura proceeded to eat her food mechanically, her mind trying to forget the little note. For the most part she was successful, her mind concentrating on her awkward body posture and forcing the noodles down her throat. When she finished, she picked it up once more. The words had not changed.

But I know you.

-K

Kakashi was making her life complicated. Despite her protests she did know him. Sakura knew the names of his summons, his favorite foods, and that he an claimed allergy to pine nuts because he hated the taste of them. And Kakashi knew that she preferred a single daffodil to the half- ton of weird pods and funky flowers that rotted in her apartment.

If Kakashi kept this up, she would change her mind.

Disturbed, Sakura went to her desk to find a blank sheet of parchment. She would have to ask Norio to set a date for the wedding.

~O~

Next door, Ms. Tokushima served Kakashi another bowl of her excellent cooking.

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi was going through old paperwork when he received the message to report to the Hokage tower. Casting a glance at the files he had opened, he frowned in dismay. Going through old missions and ninja files was hardly Kakashi's idea of a good time. But he accepted his future role as Hokage seriously, and he was determined to go through old missions so he would know what was going on. While he didn't mind acting like a fool to put people at ease, acting like one and being one were entirely different. The archive was not a frequently visited place, as evidenced by the amount of dust in the area. Tsunade had forgone this action when she accepted the title, not that he blamed her. After all, she had been gone for years, and it was difficult enough for her to balance with current events.

Kakashi knew that Naruto, whenever he was ready to take up the post, was going to be a different sort of leader. And so Kakashi made it his objective to close up some of the old missions, eliminate unnecessary rules, and tie loose ends. Going through several decades of reports was not an easy task, made more tedious by the amount of cross-referencing he had to do. The last time he had been so involved with paperwork he had been in the Academy, and that was nearly thirty years ago.

He was getting old. How depressing.

Sighing, he stacked the files back into their places, and headed towards the Hokage's office. Tsunade was clicking her heels in impatience; Sakura stood at her right.

"You're late," Tsunade said in annoyance.

"My apologies, there was a massive amount of paperwork I had put up. Speaking of which, I notice you have not made any progress at the pile near your desk since I last saw you." Kakashi eyed the crooked tower of paper that came up to Sakura's waist. He had a sinking suspicion the paperwork was going to stay there until he took the post. Tsunade narrowed her eyes at his disrespect.

"Hokage-sama," he said respectfully, although far too belated to be sincere.

Tsunade leaned back in her chair. "The Ehime family has a caravan headed for Snow Country."

"Ah, I see. Date?"

"In three days."

Sakura's face twisted in puzzlement as she listened to their exchange.

"I'll get my bags," replied Kakashi.

Sakura crossed her hands in front of her chest in aggravation. "What are you talking about?"

"My apologies. I thought your esteemed fiancé would have informed you." Kakashi took pleasure in watching the flush rise to her cheeks. He couldn't determine if it was out of embarrassment or anger, but he was growing fond of the reaction.

"The daimyo has requested the two of you to escort a caravan to Snow to protect it from it from thieves."

Tsunade continued when Kakashi did not. "Not that I've heard of a serious attempt since I've been Hokage."

Kakashi grunted. He had been guarding the caravans for years, and all the thieves with the skill to take an entire caravan were unlikely to bother with it.

Sakura had a growing look of horror on her face as she realized that she would be forced to go on a mission with the man she was anxious to avoid and her betrothed.

"Um… do I have to go?"

Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "I thought you would enjoy this mission. The daimyo didn't specify which other ninja was supposed to go. This is an opportunity for the two of you to catch up, since I know the two of you used to be quite close. The times are changing; I thought you would appreciate my gesture of one last mission."

Kakashi raised an eyebrow at her phrasing. He hadn't told anyone of his future role as Hokage. Tsunade could be fickle and he wasn't certain when she would make the announcement. So either she decided that it was time for him to take up the post or Sakura had chosen a date for the wedding. Either way, she was doing him a favor.

Tsunade leaned forward to rest her elbows on her desk. "Is there some particular reason you don't feel comfortable with Kakashi?"

Sakura shook her head, "Oh! Uh… no. No, everything is fine. I'll get my things." She left the room quickly and did not see the smirk on Tsunade's face.

"Thank you," Kakashi said sincerely as the door shut.

Tsunade took a drink from her glass. "Hmph. You shouldn't thank me quite yet. There are a lot of obstacles in your way and I don't think that your little personal mission will be successful. Then again, you have surprised me before so I'm willing to give you an opportunity. You are very good at finding out the heart of the matter and tying up loose ends. You may give Sakura a bit of closure on her own. Don't screw it up."

They met at the village gate three hours later. After a few brief words they began to travel, their journey held in silence. Kakashi wondered how long it would remain as such. He highly doubted that Sakura would last the three days it took to get there. Sakura wasn't notorious for her skills in the patience department. And so they traveled through the day, and found a secure spot to camp from the night. Both of them were accustomed to the rituals of setting up camp and did so with nary a word.

Kakashi had first watch and propped his feet up on a log as he read a book he had been given during his travels. The greatest disturbances were a few wolves that approached which he had to shoo away. A few hours later he woke Sakura up for her turn and crawled into his sleeping bag and closed his eyes.

"Kakashi."

He grunted in annoyance. He could have sworn he just fell asleep. Opening his eyes he saw the fire had not even dimmed.

"The point of a watch is to allow the other person to sleep," Kakashi said as he rolled over to glare at Sakura.

She was leaning over him, her face frustrated but curious. "Why you?"

"Why me what?" Kakashi wasn't even certain if that was a sentence, but he knew she would understand.

"Why were you chosen for the caravan? You usually don't do bodyguard missions."

"It's a long story, Sakura, one that can wait until tomorrow." He was desperately trying to avoid looking down her shirt. Sakura would be mortified if she knew the excellent view she was giving him. Normally, he would take an unashamed glance, but his current position left him extremely susceptible to a punch in the kidneys.

Sakura frowned. "It is tomorrow."

"Sakura," he said, trying to come out with a stern command. He was appalled that his request came out more like a plea . Was she already wearing him down?

Sakura did not notice his alarm and huffed. "Fine. Get some sleep."

Content, he did just that.

Her curiosity vanished in the daytime, hidden under a veneer of stubbornness. Kakashi found this deeply amusing, and chose to deliver the answer to her question until lunchtime.

"The daimyo has had me escort his caravans for years. One of my earliest missions for him was twenty-five years ago. The only time I do bodyguard missions are if they are a personal request in which my name is asked, or if Lord Ehime gives a request."

"Twenty-five years?" she said faintly. "How old are you again?"

"Thirty-four."

Sakura chewed the information over in her head. That meant he had been nine or so when he started. She had heard the inevitable rumors about his past. Konoha was a gossipy village and someone as private as Kakashi was bound to have a plethora of rumors, shrouded in lies and truth. But hearing that he was the youngest ninja in history was different than hearing it straight from Kakashi. If he was doing missions for the daimyo at age nine, it meant he had plenty of experience.

She cringed when she thought of what she was like at age nine. That was probably when she had a crush on Kiba. By that time Kakashi had been… twenty-three.

Sakura picked at her bowl of rice, once again aware of the age gap between them. It was a bit strange and only now was she becoming accustomed to the thought. Her conversation with Kakashi by the lake provided some light on his reasoning and intentions. Norio's proposal had made instant sense to her, and the opportunity for an escape from her life was too welcome. It was so easy for her to say yes to him, even with the twelve year gap. But Kakashi asking for her hand in marriage was a different story, and she found herself wary.

Getting Kakashi to talk about his past was always difficult; he was a private man who kept his mouth shut, his thoughts silent. He didn't brag about missions, share secrets and foreign jutsus. Even plying him with alcohol failed to pry open the secrets in his head. Instead, Kakashi had a habit of telling uncomfortable truths, addressing taboo subjects that everyone knew but were too afraid to address.

The last time that happened, Kakashi told everyone how Sai's nicknames originated. Ino had not been pleased.

But now Kakashi was sharing things with her of his own volition. His hands had caressed her hair by the lake, he left her a flower on her kitchen table, and cleaned up her apartment from the flower attack. These things would have made her giddy a few years ago, and she would have met with Ino to giggle over it in delight. However, time had passed and Kakashi was a man. His actions came with expectations she couldn't fulfill. Nonetheless, he was sitting across from her, eating his food, completely unperturbed that their mission meant they were going to see her betrothed. It was baffling.

"Are you done?"

"Mmm? Oh, yeah." Sakura crammed the last bit of food in her mouth and picked up her bag from the ground so they could begin their journey once more. Kakashi, she noted, was carrying himself in his usual fashion: a slight slouch, relaxed shoulders, even walk. He claimed to be serious about his request, but he wasn't bothered at all by their journey.

Crap.

It meant that he had a plan.

She had seen some outrageous things in her life. People had been raised from the dead. The destruction of entire villages. Naruto. The full list of things that astounded her would be longer than Tsunade's gambling debts. But Kakashi with a plan was one of those that escaped the list, because his actions were not obvious. As ninja, they were trained to observe their surroundings and make decisions quickly. Some people, like Shikamaru, were excellent at strategies and used those methods to predict actions. But Kakashi's mind was wired in a different way. While Shikamaru predicted, Kakashi manipulated.

She had only been aware of his methods once, although who knows how many times it occurred that she was not aware of. Truth be told, she didn't even know the full details because it was so complicated and surrounded in mystery. It had involved a planned assassination which Kakashi made appear as a suicide. Somehow he managed to rope in four different unrelated missions to advance his own task, using circumstance and the target's own paranoia. Kakashi's methods were only discovered a few months later when the client made a passing comment of admiration to Genma.

Sakura didn't think that Kakashi's plan was as elaborate as that. Besides, she was already aware of the tactic he was taking. He had admitted in the note that he left on his kitchen table that he knew her. And Sakura had already voiced her own issues that rebuffed his argument. Kakashi was going to exploit his personal history with her, and he was opening up to her slowly by revealing the inner workings of himself. And she would not be able to resist him out of her own curiosity.

He was aiming for her heart.

She chewed at the inside of her cheek, terrified of what this escort mission would bring. And Sakura looked at her partner one more time. Sensing her gaze, he turned to her, tilting to the side. One of his hands came up, and pulled at a few strands of hair just below her ear. Goosebumps rippled down her neck and across her scalp pleasantly.

She cleared her throat. "Was there something in my hair?"

Kakashi's eye snapped to hers. "I suppose."

Sakura pressed her lips together. The lazy man didn't even come up with a proper excuse. He was only playing games with her.

Anxious to arrive at the Ehime estate, Sakura stepped up to pace. Her heart had fluttered at his touch, her body becoming aware of his presence. She clenched her teeth in anger as she heard Kakaski's footsteps follow behind her. She wouldn't be fooled into believing in something that did not exist.

~O~

The Lord of Fire Country was an extremely profitable man, and thus, the Ehime estate was a beautiful place. The gardens were neatly coiffed and serene and brought people pleasure.

Kakashi couldn't stand it. There was something deeply disturbing in perfection. All too often it was a lie, carefully crafted under a pile of lies and bodies. Perhaps it was his own personal experience but Kakashi found something fascinating in imperfection. His visits to the cenotaph were a perfect example. Many people suspected he visited the place to mourn Obito, Rin, and all of the others whose names were etched on the stone. It was partially true. That had been his initial reasoning during his years as a muddled teenager who sought absolution from the dead. But there was only so long that one could stare at a name on a stone before the emotion began to feel hollow.

One morning, his new eye felt itchy and he moved his headband to rub at the Sharingan. And through the gift of the eye, Kakashi saw a different scene. The grass where people had come to pay their respects was disturbed and bent. Off to the left were the path of Anbu members who had come after an arduous mission, the matted grass and tiny flecks of blood as proof of their visit. But the spot that Kakashi found the most interesting was at his feet. The grass had worn away to reveal a patch of mud that was exposed to the elements. The Sharingan picked up the change of sandal treads, the depths of indentations that revealed different weights.

The little patch of mud was an imperfect spot in front of the monument. While the names of the cenotaph honored the sacrifice of his fellow ninja, it meant nothing if no one cared. The patterns in the mud eventually became more important to Kakashi. One could tell the view of current events by staring that that patch. During tough times, the earth would be exposed in gaping sections as people paced back and forth, hoping to find meaning in death. In good times, the spot was covered with flowers. And if a mission came back as a failure there would be a new set of footprints on the ground, the treads becoming familiar to Kakashi as the anonymous ninja paid daily visits. And when the person found acceptance, the footprints would be less frequent.

In Kakashi's opinion, beauty was found in flaws.

Tsunade's revelation of Sakura's broken heart made her more appealing. According to Tsunade, the only people who were aware of what occurred were the members of Team Seven, and none of them were divulging the truth. Sasuke was still gone, Naruto had requested a transfer to the border of Fire Country, and Sakura asked to be taken off active duty. Tsunade had balked at the initial request but relented when she saw Sakura's change in attitude.

The revelation had not stunned Kakashi, he wasn't idiotic enough to believe that life was static when he was gone, and loss was part of the ninja lifestyle. Yet, he failed to see this change in her demeanor during their brief conversations, so he confronted her at the lake.

And when he pulled her close he found the proof in a small tremble of her body. It was just enough that Kakashi would have thought he imagined it, if it weren't for the hitch of her breath at the same time. So he had been honest with her, appallingly so, unwilling to distance Sakura out of her own fear.

The change had become even more apparent on their journey to the daimyo's. The crafted demeanor she wore so gamely on the first day didn't hold on the second day as a simple touch made it disappear. And on the third day Sakura Haruno stood in the lush gardens in the Lord of Fire Country looking terribly out of place. The garden's perfection was preserved by a schedule that had fallen leaves picked up hourly, the water in the fountains were replenished daily, and the shrubs were measured weekly. Sakura stood at the edge with skin so pale it was almost anemic and with clothes wrinkled from a three-days journey.

Plus, there was one more flaw that caught Kakashi's attention, the very thing that made him reach towards her neck the previous day. There was a thin scar that was hidden behind her ear and crawled down her neck. He thought it was a piece of dried grass at the time; under normal circumstances the scar hid from eyes under her hair. But the sweat from their journey made her hair damp, making the strands of hair cling together and exposing it to his eyes.

As a medic, there was little reason for Sakura to have a scar on her body unless she was unable to heal it in time. Kakashi frowned as he looked at the scar; it was far too close to her neck. At this moment, Sakura looked too old. And if she looked this bad, what did he look like?

Sakura tugged at her hair, covering the scar once more. "You should straighten out your shirt, you look like a hobo."

Kakashi frowned in annoyance, looking down at his uniform. The girl was deluded; it was a harsh overstatement from her exhaustion. Some of his uniform was patched and certainly, his sandals had a gash in them and yes, this was the same flak jacket he had worn during his entire two year mission. But there was a difference between him and hobos. For a start, he wore clean underwear.

He was about to tell her this when he saw a servant appear. He promptly shut his mouth to keep the quip to himself, uninterested in becoming the latest servant gossip.

The servant gave a short bow when he approached them. "We have been waiting for your arrival. I am to lead you to your respectful rooms to allow you to settle in before dinner."

Kakashi waved a hand, "That won't be necessary; you only need to tell us which rooms have been prepared, although I wouldn't say no to a bath." He squinted at the servant, trying to remember his name.

"Certainly Hatake-sama. You both have been placed in the south wing, yours is the Ivory Room and Lady Sakura in the Crimson Room."

Kakashi turned to Sakura. "The South wing? You must have made quite an impression; they usually don't bother preparing a room in that wing for a one night stay."

"I guess," she replied warily.

An hour later he emerged clean and comfortable, wearing a newer uniform and headed towards the outdoor dining area. When Kakashi saw Sakura's hair from a distance, he sped up his walk. From the doorway he immediately noticed her posture was stiff and she was swirling the liquid in her cup out of nervousness.

It was a stark contrast to The Lord of Fire Country who sat across from her, a jovial man in his sixties. He was a man whose understanding of people and business led to continued success. It was for this reason that Fire Country was financially stable despite the wars that blocked trade routes and strained relationships. It helped that the daimyo's caravans were well-known to have top notch protection, and an array of talented ninja were willing to protect his imports. Ninja's loyalty was earned through the daimyo's admiration and ensured with generous pay.

Kakashi was no exception.

"Hello, Uncle." He saw Sakura's jaw drop open.

"Ah, it is good to see you once more Kakashi! I don't believe I thanked you for the assistance in Moon Country two years ago?"

Kakashi settled himself into a seat. "It so happens the trade route coincided nicely with an errand of my own I had to complete. It wasn't any trouble." He tugged his mask down and popped a strawberry in his mouth.

"First berries of the year," said the daimyo grandly.

The tall man next to Sakura chuckled softly. He had a bowl of strawberries of his own and raised one between his fingertips. "I spoke with the gardener last week about them. During our conversation he made a comment of how he kept finding marbles buried in the earth."

"I wonder why," replied Kakashi nonchalantly. He thought of his time as a "nephew" to the daimyo, and how he hid in shrubs with only a bag of marbles to distract him from boredom. Tomio smiled back at Kakashi.

The daimyo spoke up. "Have you heard the news? Norio is to be married to your esteemed partner." He reached over to pat Sakura's hand. Her eyes stayed firmly on her glass.

"Yes, that is all anyone talks about these days," Kakashi replied.

"I'm thrilled with the news. I tried to persuade Norio out of it; kunoichi rarely had any interest in settling down, but he wouldn't hear of it. Speaking of which, when are you planning on having some heirs of your own?"

Kakashi saw Sakura sink her head in her hands.

"Well, I've given the matter some thought, I'll admit. But it is not set in stone right now."

The daimyo smiled. "Anyone I know?"

Kakashi chuckled. "I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise." He saw Sakura's body sag in relief and Tomio fiddled with a strawberry in front of him.

"Surprises, indeed."

Kakashi looked over his shoulder to see the speaker, another man with a charming grin on his face.

"Father, why didn't you tell me you invited my future wife to come with us?" Norio cast an adoring look at Sakura.

For the first time since they arrived at the estate, Sakura smiled.

Chapter Text

Norio Ehime, second son of Lord Kichirou, had entered the dining area. "Hello, Beautiful."

"You're too kind," replied Kakashi.

Norio scowled. "Don't be a lout, Hatake; I was addressing Lady Sakura."

She had walked forward to greet Norio when he entered. He grasped at her hand and tugged at it and placed a kiss on her wrist.

Kakashi saw the back of Sakura's neck turned pink as she blushed once more. A part of him wanted to laugh, entertained that his feisty partner had managed to gain a new reputation as a demure lady. Perhaps it had to do with her blushing; Sakura had levitated the act into an art form. The rise of blood that settled at her cheeks made a bold contrast of her porcelain neck and accented her rosy lips…

Porcelain neck? Rosy lips? Kakashi blinked rapidly, somewhat startled by his thoughts. Just an hour ago he thought her anemic, and now he was spouting off mental poetry.

He hastily tossed these thoughts to the back of his mind as the pair approached the table.

Norio settled himself at the end of the table, Kakashi to his right, Sakura to his left. The sitting arrangement left Kakashi feeling a bit out of sorts, as there was no one on his side of the table.

Lord Ehime poured his son a glass of beverage. "I was telling Kakashi about the upcoming wedding."

"Were you?" Norio looked extremely pleased by his father's statement and turned to Kakashi. "You are more than welcome to attend the ceremony. It would be ridiculous to think that you are anything less than family."

"I would be delighted to attend your wedding," Kakashi said to Norio. "Although I must admit I was completely blown away by your choice."

Norio reached over the table to grasp Sakura's hand. "I never saw the point of settling down with someone that was not worth my time and effort. Lady Sakura proved to be a most enigmatic challenge, and an excellent example of why Fire Country stands elite among the five great nations. This marriage will be a show of ninja strength and economic prosperity working in unison. I am most fortunate."

Kakashi had forgotten how charming Norio could be. He smiled politely.

"Smooth talker. I understand why the ladies are so smitten by you."

Kakashi took a sip of his tea, willfully ignoring the comfortable clasp of the man's hand around Sakura's. His last visit to the Ehime estate had been several years ago, enough time that Kakashi's recollections of a jealous child had sprung to his mind rather than the charismatic businessman that would undoubtedly inherit the title as Lord of Fire Country.

"It is going to be a good year," said Lord Ehime with confidence. "My son will marry an extraordinary woman worthy of the title. And I've heard news about you as well Nephew. Lady Tsunade mentioned a few ideas to me when she last visited." He gave a pointed look at Kakashi.

"I serve the orders of the Hokage; it is entirely her decision," Kakashi responded.

It did not surprise him that Tsunade had mentioned her intention to pass him the title of Hokage. Transitions could be messy things and having Lord Ehime informed of the decision prior to the announcement would smooth out any panic that early rumors could cause.

Sakura furrowed her brow, her head tilting slightly to her left where Tomio sat. Lord Ehime's omission of the eldest son had caught her attention. Recognizing her signs of curiosity, Kakashi kicked Sakura in the shins as she opened her mouth. It caused her to let out a small yelp in surprise. The three members of the Ehime family turned to her; their attention caught by the first noise she had uttered that evening. Sakura ignored the attention they gave her, too focused on glaring at Kakashi.

"Sakura?" Norio asked.

"He kicked me," Sakura said, her jaw jutting out in defiance.

Kakashi shrugged. He was certain that Sakura would have asked about Tomio, and that would have led to an uncomfortable meditation on the eldest sons' sexual preferences. One of the reasons that Tomio was not banished from the family in disgrace was his own discretion, allowing Lord Ehime to turn a blind eye. It was a well known fact in the estate that went unspoken out of propriety. It appeared Sakura had not yet been informed of the touchy subject.

Norio's face demanded an answer to his tiny show of violence.

Kakashi took a sip from his glass and shrugged. "Yes, I kicked her. She was about to say something incredibly brainless."

"You don't know that!" Sakura said hotly. Her hand withdrew from Norio's clutches to point a chopstick at Kakashi in accusation.

Kakashi leaned his elbows on the table and smiled smugly. "I know you."

The chopstick wavered from her fingertips and Sakura looked at him in suspicion. The fight in her had diminished with Kakashi's reminder of his own secret pursuit of her hand. Kakashi addressed Norio.

"Sakura is a bright girl, but she acts with her emotions first. It makes her prone to stupidity."

" She's sitting right here," Sakura said caustically.

Kakashi smiled, pleased that his confrontational spitfire had returned from the strange Sakura-hybrid that had appeared earlier. He took another strawberry in front of him.

Lord Ehime cleared his throat. "Nephew, if you treat all women like that I understand you have yet to find a lady of your own. I think you might have a difficult time wooing the one you have set your sights on."

The strawberry slid down Kakashi's throat unexpectedly. There were few people who could make Kakashi feel chastised. The village elders and clan heads were dismissed quickly; they were frequently mired with their own agendas. But Lord Ehime's extraordinary people skills once again struck at the heart of the matter within a few sentences.

Kakashi could see Sakura smile in self-satisfaction.

"Yes, perhaps. But the one I have my eye on is equally confrontational. Besides, I enjoy a good challenge every now and again." Sakura's smirk faltered at his words.

Tomio frowned. "Is it that dreadful Anko woman? I thought you had better taste than her."

Kakashi shrugged. He would allow his company to draw the conclusions that they wished and decided to change the subject.

"Will everyone be ready to leave in the morning?" he asked.

Lord Ehime leaned back in his seat. "Yes, they should. One of the servants informed the drivers of when you arrived. They should be making the final preparations right now."

Kakashi stood up from his seat. "Well in that case, I'll be calling it a night." As he walked away, he contemplated the smile on Sakura's face and the eyes she made towards her intended.

This was going to be harder than he thought.

~O~

Sakura watched Kakashi walk away in relief. The entire dinner had been plagued with a knot in her stomach; she had been certain Kakashi would have brought up his own marriage plans to screw with her wedding. But then again, she hadn't been aware of Kakashi's familiarity with the Ehime family.

Her thoughts were distracted with Norio nudging her hand once more.

"Excuse us father," he said, tugging at her wrist as he stood.

Sakura looked up at him as the entered the manor. "Where are we going?"

He gave her hand a squeeze. "I wanted to talk to you in private. If we had stayed on the patio, I am fairly certain my father would be sharing news of the conversation to everyone he met on the journey to Snow."

He opened a door and ushered her inside. "Here we are."

"Wow, that's a lovely desk." Sakura's eyes were immediately drawn by the centerpiece of Norio's study.

The magnificent desk was ornately decorated with carved illustrations of a small village on the front. She approached it closer in silence; the sheer opulence struck her with awe. Sakura could honestly say that she had never seen anything like this in Konoha. The desk in her office was shoddy and plain and one of the drawers had been made too large. The drawer groaned whenever she opened it and it refused to align with the rest of the desk. Tsunade's desk looked as if it had been dredged from a garbage bin somewhere, covered in dark stains and cracks from her own angry fists. And even though Sakura was well aware the Ehime estate was filled with plush and comfort, the desk still caught her by surprise. Even here, in the second son's private study, there was a unique vision of beauty and perfection.

Norio walked over to it. "I'm quite fond of this. There was a wood carver in the south of Fire Country who was particularly skilled and I asked him to make this for me. It took him several years to complete it." Norio caressed the edge with fondness. "He was killed during the incident with Akatsuki. I never had an opportunity to invite him here."

Sakura nibbled at her lip, uncertain of how to respond. One of the reasons she had accepted Norio's proposal was his relaxed and cheerful disposition. When he laughed the joy tended to spread around and sometimes his company would be treated to an elusive dimple on his cheek. Norio's melancholy was something she didn't know how to handle, although it was preferable to antipathy.

So she turned to look at the rest of the study. There wasn't much; the place was largely empty to deter from distractions. There was a bookcase behind her that was filled with literature. She recognized many of the titles as books she had wanted to read, but had lacked the time to undertake. There was a large rug under her feet; the plush quality had not yet diminished. And there was a curtain behind the desk. When she moved it to look out the window she found that it was actually a doorway out onto a balcony.

"Oh!" Sakura gasped when she saw the view. To her left was a view of treetops and not too far away to her right she could see the glow of lights from the nearby village, a distinctly familiar image. "That's the village that is carved on your desk."

"I know."

"I'm sorry." Sakura fumbled for words. "Everything is so… perfect." She placed her hands on the railing of the balcony.

"That is why you belong here," replied Norio. He placed his hand on top of hers.

Sakura pressed her lips together at his compliment. As flattering as he was; she knew that his belief was wrong. She felt strange in this place. It was wonderful visiting this place but found it hard to believe that soon this luxury would become commonplace.

His other hand wrapped around hers to envelope it entirely.

"In my travels to other countries I have met many women, some of them noble, others daughters of businessmen. But none of them captured my attention as much as you. It takes a remarkable woman to balance the power of a kunoichi and maintain the delicate beauty that you hold."

Sakura bit her tongue; she felt like a fraud. His praise made her uncomfortable. And she wanted to remove her hand from his grasp. Norio had been holding it long enough that she was beginning to get twitchy and her palms sweaty. And Sakura wondered if Norio had some sort of obsession with hands, as he seemed to have a constant need to hold hers.

It was a silly thought, driven by her exposure to many strange ninja with oddball quirks. Hand holding was something that noblemen did. If it was in Konoha, chances are she would be slipping away to a dark corner of a bar. But Norio's advances remained chaste and delicate, the decorum required by his title.

Although there was something to be said about Norio's words; his everyday conversation carried like a poem. A teensy part of her noticed that Kakashi had paid her the same compliment by the lake. And his words had caused the dizzy lift of her heart, not musings of sweaty palms.

Sakura swallowed and tugged her hand away to cross her arms across her chest.

"Did you receive my letter?"

Norio leaned against the railing of the balcony. "Yes. I spoke to my father about arranging the wedding in autumn. I'm afraid that it is not possible. The earliest we can arrange the ceremony is in the spring.

Her stomach twisted. "Why?"

"For various reasons. We need to send invitations to some of the guests. And trade routes are particularly heavy in the autumn as people prepare for the winter. I suspect there are other reasons as well, but my father did not mention them."

"But springtime is horrible," Sakura protested. "The plague will be back at that time. Do you want people vomiting during the festivities?"

"Spring… plague?" Norio looked at her in confusion.

"Yes, it is the reason everyone is vaccinated nowadays," Sakura explained. She hoped that Norio had not been so sheltered in his large mansion that the word had not reached him here.

"Oh that." Norio waved his hand dismissively. "It shouldn't be so bad. This year wasn't nearly as bad as the year before. I'm certain that by the following year that medics will have made more advances and you will not need to worry about it at all."

Sakura stepped back inside the study in exasperation. Since she had been taken off of active duty her hours were filled with hospital work. The only reason the plague had been so light this year was because she and a few others had spent the entire winter preparing for it. Sakura wasn't certain how much time she would have to work on it this year with the wedding, not to mention finding the right window to administer the vaccinations.

But she supposed it would have to deal with it since it was his father's decision. It's not like she cared that much about the wedding anyway.

"Is there anything else bothering you?" Norio asked as he followed her inside.

"One more thing. I don't want you to think I'm ungrateful, so please don't take this the wrong way."

Norio looked at her seriously. "I promise."

Sakura cleared her throat. "Well, I love the flowers you sent me, but I was hoping that you would stop."

Norio's brow furrowed. "I don't understand."

"Well, I did like them at first." Sakura twisted her hands, concerned that she would upset him. "But now it is turning into a bit of a bother. There are a large amount of flowers, and the arrangement doesn't really fit into my apartment well, so I have to have them delivered somewhere. Then I have to find the time after work to break them up and it's just become an annoyance. And the last time I was out of the village, they were delivered to my apartment and my neighbor said she could smell it rotting through the apartment walls. It was embarrassing."

Norio shut the door of the balcony. " The last time? How often have the flowers been delivered to you?"

"Every three or four weeks." Sakura looked at the confusion on Norio's face.

"You were only supposed to receive a delivery once; I thought you would enjoy it." He reached into a desk drawer and started ruffling through some files. The drawer had opened smoothly with nary a squeak in protest and Sakura looked at it with envy.

"I contacted one of the florists on the border of Thunder Country to deliver the flowers to you. There are some truly marvelous greenhouses there, and some esoteric plants that are not native to Konoha I thought you would enjoy. I wouldn't be surprised if they have been taking advantage of my request in order to keep billing me for the massive bouquets you have been receiving. It is not the first time such a thing has happened." He pulled out a file and plopped it on his desk.

Sakura leaned over to look at it. "And you haven't noticed?"

Norio shook his head. "My father oversees the business and political component, but many of the details fall to other people. My brother ensures that our business runs smoothly and our cargo departs in a timely manner. I am frequently out of the country ensuring that our business partners at the other end are satisfied. We have several advisors in charge of the finances that keep the estate running. They have set budgets for each department and as long as the amount billed does not exceed our limit, it will not be questioned."

He tapped his finger on a page in front of him. "Here it is. If the florists had sent you one more arrangement it would have come to my attention."

Sakura's tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, astonished by the amount of zeroes in the bill. She wondered what it must be like to never have to worry about money like that.

"I will contact them on our journey. I am certain that someone will not mind taking a short trip out of the way in order to deliver the message."

"Maybe Kakashi could go," Sakura said hopefully. The less time she spent around him, the better off her life would be.

Norio laughed, revealing the elusive dimple that she had been waiting for. "It is unlikely. There are several different people coming to protect the caravan besides the two of you. Some of them are hired for only part of the journey. But Kakashi is in charge of overseeing the journey and that everyone is holding the positions. I could suggest the idea, but he would not like the idea of relinquishing his responsibility. Cousin can be very obstinate."

"Cousin?" echoed Sakura in confusion.

"I meant Kakashi."

"Oh. I didn't know you were related."

Norio hesitated. "Distantly, I believe. I have never actually asked. It is more a term of familiarity than anything. The first time I met him I was six, perhaps seven. My mother was attacked and killed by ninja's from Iwa and my father chose to employ several extra bodyguards shortly afterwards. Kakashi posed as my cousin and lived on the estate for almost four years in order to protect my family.

"I used to be jealous of him as a child. My father showed extreme favoritism towards him and I was terrified that one day my father would decide that he wouldn't want me anymore because he had Kakashi. Although I understood that my family was in constant danger and I did not realize that Kakashi was one of the bodyguards employed by my father. Although I would have understood the concept at the time, it would have been doubtful that I would have maintained the illusion.

"Kakashi would ask to go play, or have a dessert, and my father would always oblige him of his whims. And when I asked to do the exact same thing a minute later, I was always denied the opportunity. It was years later that I found out that Kakashi had been uttering code phrases to warn of suspicious persons in the perimeter, or a hidden chakra tag in the trees.

"He was there for about four years and then was called back to Konoha. After the war was over my father maintained the relationship by having Kakashi complete missions for him. At times I forget that I am not related to him- our mutual history extends through most of my life."

Norio looked at a clock that rested on his desk. "It is getting late now and we will be leaving early in the morning. I will escort you to your room."

~O~

The sun had not even risen the next day when the small caravan departed. The Ehime family and their caravan were bound for Snow Country. The cobwebs in Sakura's brain were only beginning to clear when they reached the crest of a nearby hill. She looked down at the valley before them.

"What the hell?"

Sakura jogged to the wagon behind her where Norio was going over some paperwork.

"There's a lot of wagons in the valley."

Norio looked at her in gentle amusement. "That is the rest of the caravan."

She goggled at him. "There has to be a hundred more wagons out there!"

"It is more than we usually send, but father was quite insistent. We usually send one out earlier in the year, but he wanted to wait for Kakashi."

"We can't watch all of those wagons by ourselves! You said there was help… right?" She squinted as she looked down the valley, hoping to see them.

Norio picked up his paperwork once more. "Yes, they should be down there. I would question Cousin if you want more details. He would have gathered all the information by now."

Sakura watched the wagon rattle down the hill in dismay. She really had hoped to avoid Kakashi and now Norio was suggesting that she go talk to him. Sighing to herself, Sakura headed towards her teammate.

~O~

"Do you think this will work?"

There was a grunt. "Of course it won't work. There's a reason the daimyo's caravans were never attacked, and it's because of the Copy Ninja!"

The thief looked around at his fellow underlings. "Then why does the boss think we're gonna have a chance this time?"

There were some grumbles and snorts as the men waited around, dreading the news that their employer would ask of them. For the past hour, the boss had been hidden in his office as he talked to an unknown person. Finally, the door opened.

"By now you have all heard the news, am I correct?" The boss looked at them from his doorway, hiding the view of the person behind him.

The thieves nodded obediently, some of them contemplating the thought of picking up a new career.

The boss spoke once more. "I have the maps for the path the caravan will take. They'll be in our territory by the end of next week. I've got a plan that is going to make us rich!"

"But Boss, we're never gonna be able to pull it off. It's madness!"

The boss frowned at the minion who protested. He clapped his hands twice and seconds later the underling went flying out the door.

"As I was saying… I've got a plan that is going to make us rich." He glared at them.

"Yay," the minions cried out in unison. Their enthusiasm was doubtful; it was if they had all won a free colonoscopy.

"I know it's going to be tough, but this is our chance. Most people won't see this coming and the caravan is so large this year that there is no way that the whole thing will be guarded, ninjas or not. Besides, I've got a surprise this time around."

The boss moved from the doorway to expose his cohort, a wizened old man who wore gloves.

"Go ahead and show them," said the boss.

The old man reached inside of his pocket to withdraw a small, thin arrow and held it up so the crowd of thieves could see.

"That's all we got for a plan?" cried a young voice. "Man, I thought I was going to make some real cash being a thief. I'm going back to work at the fruit stand." The new recruit ran out of the room before he too, was tossed out the door.

The boss looked out at the nervous crowd before him. "Don't listen to him. What does he know, he's just a kid! After all, it's not the size that matters; it's how you use it."

"You would know, wouldn't you, Boss?"

There were a few muffled snickers and the boss' face turned red in embarrassment.

"Don't laugh. This thing is a genuine beauty." He looked at the arrow that rested in the old man's hands with love. The boss reached into his pocket to withdraw a napkin from his pocket and used it to raise it in the air.

"If fact, I'd go so far to say this is an Arrow of Fate."

Chapter Text

The night before the caravan departed from the Ehime estate, Kakashi sent a small message via pug to Naruto. The group was crossing into Grass Country on the third day of travel when Kakashi was awoken by a familiar prickle of chakra. Recognizing Naruto's signature, he continued to doze.

Minutes later there was a shift of a weight on the caravan tarp. Kakashi waited for Naruto's traditional joyous greeting, but was met with silence.

"Stop it," he said, knowing that Naruto's hand was reaching for his mask.

"Aww…"

Kakashi's mouth twitched in amusement. Honestly, he didn't really care if Naruto saw his face or not. Of his three students, Naruto was the only one who had not had the privilege. This was a lesson in manners Kakashi was determined to hammer in Naruto's head.

Kakashi rolled off of the wagon and landed gracefully on the ground. Naruto chose to remain on top of the wagon, his legs dangling from the edge.

"So…" Naruto began with a wide smile on his face, the mischievous one that had exasperated many an Academy teacher. God help the world if Naruto became an interrogator, for the world would surely break apart.

"So?" Kakashi responded back automatically.

"Sakura?" Naruto continued.

Kakashi picked up the train of conversation immediately. "Sakura," he affirmed.

Naruto crossed his arms. "I have seen you in action. I know how you got your nickname, so you don't have to copy everything I say."

"Mmm… I'm surprised she told you. She seemed quite embarrassed by the entire thing."

"A lot of people are embarrassed by you. I had to explain to a villager a few months ago that you were my sensei and that I wasn't friends with a hobo. The villager whacked me on the back of my head with her broom when I said that. She said I should have treated you with respect." His face crumpled strangely, as if he found that idea hilarious and unbearable.

Either that or he was constipated.

"Maybe if you had worn more than three pairs of clothes when you were gone on your mission people wouldn't have had that problem thinking you were a lazy mooch."

Kakashi ignored the sly insult. "Is there a point, Naruto?"

Naruto flipped onto the ground and landed next to Kakashi. "Did you change your mind about Sakura?"

"No." Kakashi slowed his pace to allow the last wagon of the caravan to gain some ground.

"That's kinda ballsy, trying to sweep her away from underneath what's-his-face."

Kakshi said nothing as he listened to the clip-clops of the horses slowly growing quieter.

"What happened when you met Sasuke?"

A frown appeared on Naruto's lips. "Hmph. I don't know if I should say anything. Although I guess it's only a matter of time before you find out."

"Who am I going to tell?"

Naruto kicked a rock on the ground. "Okay, okay. The first thing you have to know was that I wasn't originally part of the mission. Sakura was assigned to work with a few people that I don't know very well, one of them was her boyfriend at the time. Everything was fine and they completed it, but when they were coming back from the mission they found Sasuke. Sakura's boyfriend was attacked and captured so Sakura went back to rescue him while the third member of the team was sent back to Konoha to report. On his way to the village, he ran into me. I decided to find the others and the third team member continued on his way to Konoha.

"It was easy to find them, they hadn't traveled far. And when I got there, I thought it would be like old times, a small fight and some words and then we would go different ways without really hurting each other." Naruto's voice turned bitter.

"But not this time, Sasuke was angry. Sakura was sitting on a blanket with her chin on her knees and her boyfriend was unconscious on the ground next to her. He was yelling at Sakura when I got there, he said stuff about her boyfriend, stupid stuff, you know? Sasuke was acting jealous.

"And I kept waiting for Sakura to say something but she didn't. She didn't say a single word.

"So I started to defend her, and Sasuke looked at me with surprise, like he hadn't even noticed I was there before. We fought and this time Sasuke didn't hold back at all. I ended up having an army of shadow clones hold him down so we could escape. When I turned around to see if he was following us, I could see him standing at the top of the hill with a smile on his face. Sasuke could have followed us if he wanted to, but I guess that wasn't the point.

"Sakura had been silent was because she had been crying the whole time." Naruto made a face of frustration. "I thought Sakura was over that phase, you know? I'm not happy that Sasuke feels that he can't trust us or Konoha or whatever. But it's not anything that can be helped. He felt like the village betrayed him, and it will never be his home. But Sakura didn't stop crying and she wouldn't eat. When I got back to the village I learned that Sasuke used Tsukuyomi on her. Sakura hasn't been the same since. She dropped out of active duty, she dumped her boyfriend, and she didn't volunteer at the Academy anymore. Instead, she spent her entire day working at the hospital.

"After that I moved to the border to help rebuild. But I'm waiting for any rumors of Sasuke. I'll never forgive him for what he did to Sakura."

Kakashi frowned. "And you just let Sakura take care of this situation on her own?"

"I didn't have a choice!" Naruto's voice grew louder as he grew more frustrated. "I'm not a healer! I don't know where to start. She wouldn't tell me a single thing when I was there in the village. She went around town acting like everything was fine, but everyone could see it in her eyes. Ino promised that she would watch out for her and send me a message if I was needed." He sighed. "Compared to last year, she is not that bad, so I guess she's healing."

Kakashi's brow furrowed. "And you don't know anymore than that?"

Naruto shrugged. "I wish I could tell you more, Kakashi-sensei."

They walked in silence as Kakashi contemplated Naruto's explanation. There was a large piece missing in the story: the reasoning to Sasuke's actions. It rankled Kakashi and he knew the answer would elude him for some time.

Naruto shook his head, his eyes squinting at the large caravan that rattled down the mountain ahead of them. "Sakura's marrying this guy because she's running away. I'm not saying that she won't be happy or he's a jerk. But how does a girl who has actually put her hands in a guy's chest become a trophy wife?" Naruto stopped walking, patiently waiting for an answer.

"When she forgets who she is," replied Kakashi. He nodded at Naruto and ran forward to catch up with the caravan, leaving Fire Country behind.

Kakashi could testify that Tsukuyomi was a terrifying attack and it was difficult to recover from it. But he also knew that Tsunade was excellent at alleviating a great deal of the pain, which meant that the issue was mostly psychological.

Kakashi passed Sakura on his way to the front of the caravan. She was sitting on top of a wagon, clumsily attempting to monogram her name on a handkerchief. Kakashi shook at his head and her fruitless endeavor; the wagon was bumping along so it would be impossible to stitch properly. It appeared she had lost a part of her common sense as well.

It was a long journey to Snow Country and Kakashi hoped he could remind her who she was by then.

And if he failed, there was always the trip back.

~O~

Every night, the wagon formed a spiral and all of the people gathered in the center by a giant bonfire. The people would gather and share stories as they waited for the cooks to prepare the food. The daimyo did not isolate himself from his servants, encouraging his company with tales of his own. Sometimes they would be one large group, at other times they would separate into groups of similar interests. It was a comfortable atmosphere, and this was one of the reasons that Kakashi had no issue with being Lord Ehime's favorite shinobi. The trips were largely comfortable journeys with little action, big pay and great entertainment. But this normally pleasant journey was marred with Sakura's presence. For Kakashi had observed with increasing irritation as the days progressed, that Sakura had sat obediently at her betrothed's side. She stayed away from the bodyguards and other ninja, and she stayed away from him.

Kakashi would be the first to admit that stealing Sakura away from under the client's nose was an audacious move. And he would have been less impressed with her had she made it easy for him. But his irritation was not borne of the circumstances- rather it was the attitude she exhibited. When Sakura sat next to Norio she held his hand, she would give a demure smile, and she… tittered . A high pitched fangirl-esque noise that was completely foreign to his ears. The Sakura that he knew would have punched that girl in the face. Sakura's real laugh was more of a guffaw, shamelessly unrefined but genuine.

This new version of Sakura fit into that circle of nobility and Kakashi did not like that one bit. He was beginning to grow apprehensive, to doubt his own vow and determination. Not that he would stop his pursuit of her hand; what sort of man would he be to give up on Sakura so easily?

" Hee heee hee."

He felt a muscle in his jaw twitch as he heard Sakura's mutated laugh sound nearby. Darting a glance at her, the soft light of the fire made her hair glow unnaturally. There was a simple smile on her face and Kakashi found himself marveling that Sakura had managed to retain a fresh quality despite several days' journey. It was easy to imagine her dressed in the finest silks, her hair twirled up and welcoming visitors into the magnificent Ehime estate with a gracious smile.

"Hmph, if you ask me that chick must have been a worthless kunoichi."

Kakashi's visions were interrupted as one of the guards spoke, a gruff man whose blond hair was turning gray. He was a familiar face; Kakashi supposed he was one of the people regularly employed by the daimyo. What was his name? Kenta? Kenji?

"Is that what you think?" asked a teenage servant, whose posture still exhibited that particular slouch from an unexpected growth spurt. "They say she's one of the best there is out there. I think that Norio-sama is lucky, Yori."

Ah , thought Kakashi, the guard was Yori. Well, he was close .

The lone woman of the group gave a derisive laugh. "She's pretty enough, I'll give her that. But you have to be kidding me if you think that uptight little wallflower is any good at fighting."

Kakashi scrutinized the woman, noticing the band around her upper arm that identified her as a kunoichi from Grass Country. She was pretty, albeit plain, and there was an attitude to her posture that indicated confidence. Peeking underneath the armband was a long jagged scar. She was definitely not a medic-nin.

The kunoichi spit a wad of tobacco out of her mouth and spoke once more. "I've never heard of her, and if she's as good as they say she is, I think she would be in the Bingo Book by now. And with that color of hair, I know I would have recognized her description at least. I think that the whole thing is some sort of set-up to impress the other countries, like we're the stupid ones that can't recognize an imitation kunoichi over the real deal."

"Yeah that's what I was saying," said Yori. "I don't really mind who Norio-sama marries, it's not my business. But if they are going to be advertising her background as a ninja, some people are going to test her to see if it is true. And if she is not up to the challenge, it is going to make my job harder."

Kakashi then recognized the man as the head of the security for the Ehime estate, responsible for the hiring of guards and the one who hired security during travel. His interaction with Yori had been minimal after an incident a dozen years ago that led to Kakashi reporting directly to Lord Ehime. He couldn't recall seeing the man around since then. Perhaps the man still held a grudge against him or it was simply a chance that they had not crossed paths.

"I think you should know that Sakura is more than capable of handling herself in a fight," Kakashi said. He felt the audience's attention shift towards him. "She's one of the most enthusiastic ninja that I've ever had the pleasure of working with."

The woman leaned over a smug smile on her face. "I noticed you used the word enthusiastic, not talented."

He cursed internally at his poor choice of words, a mistake that the Grass nin had seized like Naruto on a ramen fit. It wasn't that Sakura lacked talent, it was all too easy for him to imagine the unfiltered satisfaction on her face right before she delivered an earth-shaking punch.

Matters were not helped when Sakura chose at this time to give another high-pitched giggle.

"Sakura's talent is often overlooked because of the circumstances in which her abilities lie," he said, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the distaste on Yori's face. "She is a medic-nin, and when she isn't busy in the hospital researching she's often playing second fiddle to other jonin such as myself."

The grass nin rolled her eyes. "Oh, she's a medic-nin . Everyone knows that those ninja have meager talent anyway. They can't fight properly so they have to hang around the back and hope no one sees them. I bet it would take ten seconds for me to beat her to a pulp. "

Kakashi tilted his head, making it very apparent to the rest of the people in the circle that he was judging the Grass kunoichi. The woman's scar on her arm showed she wasn't afraid of close combat. She had numerous pockets, probably for the dozens of weapon's that she had hidden away. Ninjas from Grass relied heavily on poisons for their success. All of these were skills that Sakura would have an easy time overcoming.

"You could try, but you wouldn't get very far," he replied.

The woman scowled. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Kakashi shrugged, feeling as if had done enough talking for the night. "It is something you will have to discover on your own. Talk to her, she'll surprise you."

With his vague statement delivered, Kakashi headed to a nearby wagon. He would have to wake up later to watch the wagons while everyone else slept. Best to get some rest now.

~O~

Sakura stared at the map that Norio had unfurled and desperately hoped that she looked interested. Honestly when she had asked what had happened to part of the caravan, she hadn't expected a two-hour lecture on the history, uses, and politics of the silk trade. A few of the wagons had branched off deeper into Rock Country. Among the travelers was Suzu, a kunoichi from Grass country.

The woman had approached her a few days in the journey and asked to borrow a senbon. Sakura admitted that she didn't carry senbon because it was a weapon that she had never favored. That led to a conversation about weapons and which weapons were the most dangerous. She was somewhat disappointed that Suzu was in charge of leading part of the caravan in a different direction. It was nice having her around.

"Sakura." The radio by her wrist crackled as Kakashi's voice broke through.

"Yes," she replied, somewhat relieved by the interruption.

"Do me a favor and stay in the wagon. I think we are about to be attacked." Norio stopped rolling up the scroll in his hand and stared at the radio.

"Shouldn't I be going outside to help you?" Sakura asked in puzzlement.

"No." There was a pause, and when he spoke once more his voice had taken a business-like tone. "We are traveling through Grass Country." The static died as Kakashi turned off the radio.

"Attacked?" Norio turned to Sakura, his eyes shining in excitement. "Attacked? In all of my travels, I have never been attacked before."

Sakura looked at him in surprise. "Never?" The sheer idea astounded her.

"No. Yori was excellent at providing guards for me during my travels. There were a few incidents with robbers but it was not a real challenge. Hatake was always responsible for the caravan and most robbers deemed it too much of a risk to attempt. I do remember an assassination attempt when I was a child, but I was too young at the time to be frightened."

He leaned forward in eagerness. "I do not mean to be rude, but why did Kakashi ask you to stay inside? While I have never seen you in battle, I am told you are efficient in combat."

Sakura leaned forward to keep her voice low. "We're in Grass Country; a great deal of their attacks focus on using poisons. Kakashi wants me to avoid the initial confrontation so I can heal any of the injuries."

As she spoke, she heard an odd noise outside of the wagon that gradually grew louder.

"What the hell?" It was as if a rainstorm appeared out of nowhere, the air was filled with the rhythmic tap of rain. Sakura saw Norio raise his hand to move the curtain from the window, and she yanked his hand and pushed him down to the ground.

"You don't know what's out there," she hissed, as she stared at the window.

The sound died off in seconds, only followed by the yelling of guards, and screeches of the horses. It sounded as if a few of the wagons had tipped over as well.

"Go boys," yelled a foreign voice, "you know what to do."

"Yes, Boss!" cried a legion of men.

Sakura moved from the floor, and moved the curtain over ever so slightly to peek outside. She saw dozens of men pass her window as they made their way to the back of the caravan. When she saw no one else pass, Sakura decided to open the door.

Norio grabbed her arm. "What are you doing? Hatake told you to stay in the wagon!"

She gave Norio a look of annoyance as she removed his hand from her arm.. "I heard him. But you didn't understand the message he was sending me at all." She shut the door to the wagon and looked around.

The entire caravan had come to a standstill; there were dozens of people lying motionless on the ground. She swallowed with difficulty, trying her best to ignore the welling of fear. Placing her hand on the nearest man she noticed he was still breathing, although unconscious. She went on to the next person, only to notice the same results.

"What is going on here," she muttered. With the third person she flipped him over and then gave a gasp. The man was covered in tiny needles. It was if he had been attacked by some sort of porcupine. Looking properly at her surroundings, she noticed that the needles were even on the wagons, making the noise that Sakura had mistaken for rain.

On other people, there was a single arrow, long but slim.

Not too far away was another man with blondish-gray hair. He was still conscious, although his movements were severely hampered by his paralyzed legs.

"What happened?" Sakura asked as she began to delicately remove one of the slim arrows from his leg.

"Attack," the gruff man replied. "Not that you were of any help. They've stolen the horses."

Sakura stopped her careful breakdown of the poison to look at the nearest wagon. The horses had been stolen, leaving the wagons without something to pull them.

"Don't worry, I'll get them back," she said as she continued to heal the man.

Sakura had been warned of making promises before, knowing that sometimes it was impossible to keep them. But Kakashi, she was certain, was still conscious. She had seen him transport out of sticky situations and she had the utmost confidence that he was biding his time before his plan went into effect.

"Yeah, right," a voice said behind her. Before Sakura could move, she felt an arrow enter her backside, causing her butt to go numb. Her body recognized the foreign agent immediately and was already hard at work at combating the poison. She tried to raise her arm to remove the arrow, but she was having a difficult time moving.

"Don't even bother; this stuff could knock out a horse," said the thief. He cast her a smug smile, climbed on his horse and galloped away.

"Argh!" Sakura yelped as she felt a hand grope her, and then yank out the offensive arrow.

"Goooo," the blond man said, his words becoming slurred. "Get ush back the horshesh."

Sakura staggered to her feet as she was removing the poison from her body. The gruff man had fallen asleep like the others, leaving Sakura aware that she was mostly alone in solving the situation. She swore at Kakashi under her breath as she wondered where he had disappeared; she swore at the thief who had the audacity to shoot an arrow in her rear end. It made it difficult to remove the poison, and she couldn't see properly to heal the wound. But she was feeling better and the thieves were escaping, so she left the small injury for later. She needed to chase after those thieves.

Targeting the horses was sort of brilliant. While there were plenty of people interested in buying gold, tapestries, and even silk, there was a limited market for that sort of thing. The thieves could stuff their pockets all they wanted, but they would have a hard time getting away on foot. But the horses that were transporting the goods were used to hard work. They were horses that would be bought by the average farmer without hesitation, as opposed to a rare jade statue. It also made for a quick getaway.

And right now, the thieves were riding away on the horses, leaving the entire caravan without transportation.

If she let them escape, who knew who long it would be before they were able to move again. Not to mention the humiliation that this would cause since she was one of the few people still awake.

And so Sakura ran after them.

And ran after them.

And ran after them.

It wasn't too long before she realized a tragic flaw in her half-assed plan.

She was out of shape.

Oh yes, compared to the average civilian she was considerable ahead of the curve. But running full out on a field and chasing thieves on horses required a hefty amount of endurance, the kind she didn't have after spending almost a full year in a hospital. And even when she did train, it was exercise in aim and flexibility. Rarely did she spend time running laps around Konoha.

Why hadn't she paid more attention to Lee's training?

Even with the assistance of her chakra she could feel exhaustion settling in. It was a depressing situation. She hadn't seen anyone seriously injured at the caravan, she was the only one who could eliminate the poison, and she was one of the few conscious. It was a lot of pressure on her shoulders and she should be conserving her chakra. But if she didn't get the horses back, she would be the laughing stock of the entire estate.

Despite the burning in her legs, she stepped up the pace.

Not far off she could see the canyon that was the border into Rock Country. The caravan had passed through this spot not even two hours ago; the stone walls were the only thing visible for the entire morning.

And Sakura caught a break. It looked as if the horses were feeling some pain of their own; some of them had grown tired of the running and were beginning to slow. Pretty soon she was right behind the riders. Now all she had to do was stop them.

Changing her direction slightly, she made for the cliff walls, running across them to cut ahead. When she glanced down at the ground, Sakura noticed that the thieves hadn't even noticed her presence.

Smirking, she reached out her hand to grab a protruding rock. It snapped satisfyingly under her hand. Reaching into her pocket, she grabbed a pair of exploding tags in her pocket and stuck them on.

By now she had gained a bit of distance and Sakura could here the voices of exclamation as they noticed her presence. She jumped off the cliff wall and landed on the ground and spun to face the thieves. She had to wait for just the right moment.

"Three.." The horses were still galloping towards her and it looked as if they had no attention of stopping.

"Two..." Sakura snapped her wrists down, a rock in each hand.

"One!" She tossed the rocks in front of her, causing the air to fill with a healthy amount of dust. A few rocks came flying in her direction and she caught one that aimed straight for her head.

She heard the horses whiney and their hooves stop as they came to a standstill.

"Don't you move!" She screamed at the thieves, some of whom flinched with her words. "If you do, I'll block the exit entirely. Let's see how long you survive in Grass Country without a passage to Earth."

"Who's gonna stop us?" exclaimed one man. Sakura scanned the group of thieves to identify the speaker. Alas, she noted with amusement, they all looked similar. "You may be pretty, but I'm not scared!"

"Yeah!" cried the rest of thieves at the same time as they raised their arms in front of them. Sakura cocked her head in puzzlement; then raised her arm as she heard the distinct clicks of arrows being released. Sakura raised her arm to shield her face and let out a yowl as the needles struck her.

"That's not going to work," she declared as she immediately started to break down the poison.

"She's not going down, why isn't she going down, Boss?" The crowd of thieves was looking at her with absolute shock. Sakura smiled smugly, despite the exhaustion creeping in her bones.

"I don't know!" out a deep voice. "Minion! Didn't I tell you to set up a special attack for the ninja?"

Sakura winced as she removed the pesky needles from arms and legs. The tip was designed with a barb, making each one irritating to remove. It also left her skin pockmarked with tiny, bleeding holes.

"Yeah. I did! I shot her with the giant arrow!"

"But that should have been enough poison to knock out an elephant!"

"Ha!" cried Sakura. "I specialize in this sort of thing. The compound is effective, and powerful, but it's incredibly easy to break down. This isn't going to work against me."

The group of thieves watched in amazement as her minor injuries were healed before their eyes. "Oh yeah? Well, we're stronger than you!" cried the man with a deep voice.

Sakura didn't reply, choosing to pick up the rock by her foot and crush it.

"I'm still not scared," the man called back, only this time he sounded like a big fat liar.

Sakura wiped her face with her wrist. A steady stream of sweat was beginning to pour down her face and she still had to conserve some of her energy to heal the others. Most likely she would have to take an energy pill just to get back to the others.

"That is enough."

Sakura sighed in relief when she heard Kakashi's voice. She could have easily blocked the passageway into Rock Country with a nice punch of her fist on the side of the canyon. But then she probably would have had to open it back up the next day, which was something she'd rather not do.

Kakashi landed next to her.

"You are going to get off of those horses, line up against the wall, and sit there patiently for us to come back with the caravan. And then Lord Ehime will decide your punishment."

Sakura tried not to stare at him, only glancing at him from the corner of her eye. Although he spoke with confidence, she could tell he had been hit with one of the arrows. His movements were stiffer than normal, and there was sweat pouring down his neck.

"No we aren't! We are gonna sell our loot and be rich!"

"Hmm... well I'm afraid I can't allow that. You see, I promised a man I would lead him to his daughter, and that is what I am going to do. So, I could fight you, but that means I would have to get rid of the bodies. I really don't feel like being a grave digger today. What about you Sakura?"

"Nope. Although I could make a big hole in the ground and we can just toss them all together…" she rubbed her chin dramatically.

"Excellent suggestion! I suppose the choice is the Pit of Death." Kakashi clapped his hands in front of him.

"No! No! Wait!" The boss flung himself off of his horse and flattened himself facedown on the ground "Please don't kill me!"

"What about your employees?" Kakashi asked.

The boss looked up. "You can kill them if you want," he replied before he lowered his face back down. There was a crowd of indignation from the thieves; they were clearly unimpressed by their leader.

"Hey!" cried one as he leapt off his horse. "I left my job at the sake house for this work!"

"I've been working with you for five years!" cried another. "I was gonna get a promotion as lead stableman when I left my old job."

"I let you sleep with my wife on the promise of extra money!"

The crowd of thieves were lowering themselves from their horses and approaching their leader with unhappy looks and mutters.

"Sakura," whispered Kakashi. "Will you get their attention for me?"

"Of course."

She raised her arm perpendicular to her chest and with a sweeping motion thumped the canyon wall. A large crack sounded as the rock split open, silencing the thieves.

"How about a compromise?" asked Kakashi. "You give us back everything you stole and we give you your lives and your freedom?"

"How do we know your gonna keep it?" One man stepped forward to speak for them, a large balding man with enormous buck teeth.

Kakashi shrugged. "Your other choice is the Pit of Death."

"Oh." The newly appointed leader scratched his head. "I'll take the freedom."

"Me too."

"Yeah."

"Don't forget me!"

The failed thieves were nodding their heads emphatically as they dragged their former leader away. Sakura watched them trudge along in amazement. She couldn't quite understand how a group that brainless managed to get as far as they did. Popping her back, she turned around to Kakashi, who was examining the horses.

"Guh," she muttered. "How are we going to get them all back?"

Kakashi chuckled. Seconds later there was a poof as a legion of shadow clones appeared.

Sakura felt herself flush. It was such an obvious solution, but Naruto was the one who used Shadow Clones. It was weird watching all of these identical Kakashi's raise themselves onto the horses. Sakura had gotten it in her head that he was unique, and multiple Kakashi's didn't seem to fit his profile.

She grabbed a horse of her own and followed.

"What took you so long?" Sakura asked, wincing as she felt a pain in her rump. She had forgotten about the minor injury.

"Removing traps," replied the nearest clone to her right. "They were assembled on the ground to trap the wagon wheels as they passed. We would have had to dig every wagon out if they were activated. I had to disassemble them from under the ground."

Sakura noted he did look a bit dustier than normal. "I was clipped by one of the needles when I finished. It took me forever to catch up with you. Good job, by the way."

"Thank you," replied Sakura. "I bet you thought I couldn't handle it."

Kakashi shook his head. "Of course I thought you could handle it. I didn't know if you would try or if you would stay with the caravan."

She rolled her eyes. "We needed the horses, of course I would try."

"You have been with Norio the entire journey, I didn't know if that would change."

"I have not!" Sakura snapped. "I've talked to other people. You're just annoyed I've been avoiding you."

"He's wrong for you. He doesn't understand you're a ninja," the Kakashi clone said simply.

"He understands me perfectly!" she retorted.

He raised an eyebrow. "I'll bet you my most humiliating story that he doesn't."

Sakura gasped. "Okay, what do you have in mind?"

Kakashi rubbed his chin in thought. "If Norio lets you heal everyone without minimal interruption I tell you my story. He is allowed three disruptions. If he tries to help you, nobody wins. But if the first thing he does is hold your hand, then I win a dance to every formal celebration we attend."

"A dance?" Sakura asked, rubbing at the side of her leg. That didn't sound too bad; it wasn't very likely that she would attend one of those with him anytime soon. She nodded. "You have yourself a deal."

Kakashi chuckled. "I thought so."

When they got back, Sakura set to work on removing the poison. Some of the people were already awake, the effects of the poison had already dissipated. Some people had been hit with dozens of them, leaving them sluggish and numb.

The people who were hit with the small arrows were the worst off. The tip of the arrow was easily broken off, often leaving the end inside. And she learned that a great deal of her patients were sissy, prone to wiggling, and whimpering. Sakura found it was easier to revive them after she eliminated the poison and the arrow.

"You are covered in dirt."

"What?" Sakura looked up from her drooling patient to see Tomio, the elder brother, standing next to her.

"You are covered in dirt," he repeated. "A lady should not be so filthy."

Sakura stared at him in astonishment. "I'm trying to heal a patient. I'll worry about the dirt later."

Tomio frowned and then walked away.

"Hmph, I can't believe he said that," she muttered as set to work once more.

She was so involved in her work that she didn't notice Norio's approach until she stood up to move to another wagon. He was staring at her hands in fascination and clasped them in hers.

"You have such skill to mend," he said in awe. "I have heard the stories, but I did not truly understand until now."

Sakura smiled at the compliment; a smile that promptly died as she saw Kakashi give her a pointed look as he passed.

"Dammit!" she swore. "I mean... I just…I'm getting tired and I really need to finish," Sakura stammered as she gained freedom of her hands. "Excuse me."

The travel for the remainder of day was a wash. By the time Sakura was finished healing everyone, she was exhausted. Not to mention that quite a few of the wagons had been tipped over in the attack. She spent the remainder of the day watching the servants check the horses for injury. The cook was even kind enough to bring her a bowl of soup to where she sat. When she was done, she made her way to Norio.

"I think I'm going to sleep," she said to him. "I'm worn out."

Norio reached forward to give her wrist a squeeze. "Very well. Good night, Beloved."

Sakura grunted in reply, her body too sore for her to think of a poetic response and the annoying little welt on her bottom was still throbbing. Sakura hobbled along to search for her wagon. She found it toward the back; the guard's wagon took a weak priority compared to the ones with cargo. Slipping inside, she took care to close all of the curtains.

Her wagon was shared by all of the guards. It contained a small desk in the back and eight beds. The only other items were the guard's belongings which were tucked into corners or shoved under beds.

Not that anyone had really brought much with them.

She pulled out her bag from under the bed and successfully found a small mirror.

"Ah-ha," she said as she found it and propped it against a canteen on the tiny desk. Sakura tilted her head. Hearing nothing, she spun around, looked over her shoulder and slowly eased her shorts down to get a view of the injury in the mirror. She poked at the wound with her finger, unable to quite see it at the awkward angle. A few more pokes revealed the answer to her injury.

"Oh no," Sakura muttered as she realized the source of her irritation. She had taken great care to remove the whole arrow when she treated everyone. But the imbecile who yanked it out of her bottom had left the arrowhead. She hadn't noticed it at first because of the numbing side effects, and then she had been so busy with everyone else. Sakura had been allowing the tiny barb to dig itself deeper with every step she took. What had begun as a slight itch was now making her entire buttcheek sore.

She shifted, craning her head to get a bitter view in the mirror.

"Is everything alright in there?"

Sakura froze when she recognized Kakashi's voice.

"Yes," she said in an unconvincingly high voice, praying that he would go away.

"Then why were you hobbling?"

If he already saw her walking strangely, he already knew she was injured. At least he had the presence of mind to stay outside of the wagon. "Because I felt like it. Why do you always ask annoying rhetorical questions?" she shot back.

"To show everyone how smart I am." A pause. "What happened?"

"One of the arrowheads is embedded in my skin."

"Oh. Why didn't you take it out before?"

Sakura ground her teeth in annoyance and humiliation. "Because I can't really see it," she muttered.

"What?"

"I can't really reach it."

She heard Kakashi's foot land heavily on the single step outside of the wagon. So she yanked her shorts up hurriedly right as she heard his hand twist the doorknob. Sakura smiled at him innocently as she watched him from his position in the doorway.

"I'll be more than happy to remove the stick from your ass."

Sakura felt an immediate longing to throw something heavy at him. "I didn't say anything about that!"

"The mirror you placed behind you gives me an excellent view of your rear," Kakashi explained. He stepped into the wagon fully and clicked the tiny door behind him shut. "You wouldn't have that there otherwise. Turn around."

"What? No!" She tugged the edge of her skirt down in protection. "I can't let you do that! It's inappropriate!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Kakashi replied in an infuriatingly mild voice. "This is a perfectly understandable situation. It is simple first aid to remove a splinter from a fellow ninja."

"A splinter under the skirt of a woman you are trying to knock up!"

Kakashi narrowed his eyes. "Keep your voice down. Other people might have the wrong impression if they hear you."

She snorted. "I'm surprised you care. If people overheard us, then Norio would find out, and I'm sure that's just a little bit of the drama you would love to cause. Then it would be a matter of time before he dumps me to find someone that is neat and perfect."

Kakashi's eyes flicked to a spot over her shoulder. "I prefer discretion to scandal any day. Besides, I want you to come to me because I'm the right choice, not because I'm all that is left."

"I don't care; I'm not going to let you help me."

"Fine, then who will?"

Sakura opened her mouth to reply, and then snapped it shut. "Oh no." She saw Kakashi's nod.

Most of the caravan was composed of male staff since many of the females had stayed at the estate to keep it running. The few females on the trip had consisted of guards of some sort. As she looked at the various belongings of the other ninja, she realized that she was the only female left. The few that had journeyed had branched off in another direction, including Suzu, the kunoichi from Grass.

So her choice was Kakashi, a random stranger, or Norio. She had a feeling that Norio would decline the request; his propriety was too stubborn to go beyond a casual holding of her hand. And a random stranger would be a nightmare to explain if word got out, not to mention the teasing she would receive in return. Logically, Kakashi was the best choice; she had done a fair share of medical procedures on him that were in violation of the personal space he held on so dearly. Normally, she was certain that he would pay her the courtesy of extending the same privilege. But his goals were currently more self-serving than she liked.

Maybe she could hold off until Snow Country.

"Snow Country is still two weeks away," Kakashi replied, somehow reading her mind.

"Please don't embarrass me," she pleaded.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Kakashi replied as he placed a hand on her shoulder.

Sakura reached into her pocket and handed him a pair of tweezers. He pulled the rickety chair forward and placed her hands on the back of the chair.

"Now pull down your shorts and bend over," he said.

She removed a hand from the chair to elbow him. "I am not here to fulfill your weird little fetishes."

"I need light to see," he answered as he pointed to the weak lamp on the table. "If you don't bend over the shadow will make the arrowhead harder to see. And I'd rather not have your backside exposed to the door."

"Oh." Sakura could feel the heat rise to her face again.

"You have a dirty mind," he said as he placed her errant hand onto the back of the chair once more.

They stood there staring at each other.

Kakashi sighed. "Sakura, you have nothing to fear from me. I promise I won't discuss this with anyone else."

"Not even to tease me about my underwear?" she asked, inwardly relieved that the pair she was wearing was reasonably clean and cute.

"Don't be silly. I saw your underwear ages ago when I broke into your apartment. I already came to terms with your fondness for polka dots a few weeks ago."

Sakura pressed her lips together and made no move to follow his instructions. Kakashi nudged her shoulder with his hand, coaxing her to turn around and slowly guided her to fact the other direction. His hand slid slowly, but firmly against her back, pushing her forward. Sakura heard him tug the lamp that sat on the table forward to get a better view, the heat tingling near her left buttcheek. The other hand was motionless against her rear.

His next step was to flip her skirt above her waist, the material resting at the small of her back. His fingertips played at the edge of her shorts.

"Ugh… what's taking you so long?" She asked, pleased that her voice did not give away her nervousness.

"I'm trying to make sure I don't tug your underwear down as well. Unless you want me to look?"

Sakura hated the innocence of his question, as if wasn't quite aware of the perverse little game they were playing. She opened her mouth to give a tart reply, only to squeak as he slid her shorts down in one smooth action so they landed at her ankles.

She felt his hands at the base of her ankle and slowly trailed up, past her calves, knees, and thighs. Sakura remembered seeing the servants apply the same method to the horses they treated in the afternoon. His hands slipped between her thighs, encouraging her to adjust her stance with a slight nudge. Moments later she felt his fingers prod at the injury with the tweezers. Sakura bit her lip as she concentrated on the tiny bursts of pain. It was easier than thinking it would be for his fingers to drift.

Ugh, is he done yet?

Sakura stamped her legs in impatience and jerked back when she felt his hair against her bare cheek.

"Don't do that," Kakashi chastised with a small pinch behind her knee. "You're worse than the horses."

Sakura didn't respond, not trusting her voice after the explosion of goosebumps down her back and legs.

"All finished." She heard him set the tweezers on the table.

"That's it?" Sakura had expected the humiliation to be worse.

"I could do more if you'd like." He stood in front of her and Sakura tugged back on her shorts.

"Er… no." Sakura had already begun to plot methods of revenge against his wandering hands. Yet, he had stayed clinical; it was something she had not been anticipating.

"I didn't think so," Kakashi replied as he raised his hand and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. His thumb grazed purposefully against the thin scar behind her ear, following it down to her jaw. Sakura flinched, knocking the tiny lamp to the ground.

In the darkness, Sakura was all too aware of the shake of her body and her own ragged breathing.

She could see Kakashi's silhouette from the meager window light, his thumb at her neck where it could easily feel the rapid beat of her heart. Sakura tried to speak; it wasn't as if she was frightened of him. But her mind had stalled and all she could utter was a small whimper.

Kakashi's hand dropped to his side and moments later she was alone in the wagon. Sakura stared at the fluttering curtains; Kakashi's touch still burned along her cheek. She raised her hand to touch the scar behind her ear.

"Ikuye," she whispered.

Outside, Kakashi listened to Sakura as she began to sob. A part of him wanted to go inside; he did not want to walk away with her crying. But his more logical side argued that her pride and his discomfort would only make the situation worse. So he grudgingly headed back to the campfire. As the sound of Sakura's cries faded into Yori's laughter, Kakashi mentally tucked away a few questions.

What had he done that caused her to shake?

Why had she begun to cry?

And who was Ikuye?

 

Chapter Text

Sakura felt the smile on her face grow wider as they approached the Tora Estate. The past two weeks had been silent agony for her. She had been unaware of the cold shoulder the guards had been giving her in the initial part of the journey. But after she saved all of their butts, they were only too happy to invite her to their social circle. In the past two weeks she had been avoiding Kakashi unsuccessfully, especially when they had to camp. She had to sit next to him when they listened to random guard stories. Even in the summertime Snow Country was chilly and as the caravan traveled deeper in Snow Country the circles became tighter.

Another part of the caravan had branched off as they had climbed up the mountain. There were only ten wagons left and Kakashi's presence became a weight on her spirit.

It was a bit ridiculous; it wasn't as if he had done anything wrong. But he managed to reawaken some of the pain she was so desperate to leave behind. She nearly sobbed with joy when they rounded the mountain and Norio pointed out the Tora Estate. It was located in the valley between a ring of mountains and for the past two days the vision had teased her as she crunched along the mountain path.

Life was easier on her when she was able to ignore Kakashi.

"Welcome, welcome!" A servant called out as opened the gates.

Sakura waved cheerily at the greeter as the caravan paused to let the Ehime men exit the wagons. She went to follow the caravan to the back of the estate but was blocked by Kakashi.

He looked down at her with amusement. "Where do you think you are going?"

"I have to get my bag," Sakura replied, irritated that she was still in his presence even as she was so close to her goal.

He shook his head. "Leave it."

"But…"

"The servants will return your belongings, assuming they don't already have an entire wardrobe outfitted for you. You are a family guest after all."

Sakura scowled. Kakashi had used this tactic for the past few weeks. He would mention her betrothal and dance around the fact he wanted her for himself.

To the innocent bystander he was making a statement. Underneath he was mocking her. And underneath the underneath he was being an ass.

She turned away from him and jogged to catch up with Norio.

There was a one welcome benefit to the attack a couple of weeks back. Norio had become considerably bolder in his advances. Whatever ideological vision he had painted of her in his head had become a bit more realistic. His hands had not been content to stay in hers and conversations were no longer about the history of silk trade. They had been replaced by stories of his own travels as he helped run the family business.

Despite Norio's admission that he had never been attacked in his travels, it did not mean he had lived a sheltered life. There were some stories which would have caused Tomio to have a fit of madness. One in particular involved a troupe of cross-dressing merchants and shipment of feathers left Sakura with tears of laughter in her eyes.

Conversely, Norio had become very interested in her experience as a ninja. One of his favorite stories was when she forced Kakashi out of his hiding spot from underground. But Sakura found a depressing amount of them containing Sasuke in some form. She did not want to dwell on him more than necessary.

Following the servant's lead, Sakura was shown to her room. She took a few moments to look at her surroundings which included a comfortable bed and a large window. Sakura's jaw dropped when she saw all of the elegant robes they had left in the wardrobe. She hesitantly removed one and trailed her fingertips over the material. It wasn't as pricey as she had originally thought but the design was simple. And it was better than the same dirty clothes she had worn during most of the journey. It made her feel less guilty as she put it on.

There was a knock on the door as she was finishing. A servant came in, giving a short bow as she entered.

"Dinner will be served soon. May I escort you to the dining hall?"

"Umm… yes, please." Sakura glanced around the room as she wiggled her toes on the rug. "Uh…"

"Your sandals are located in the drawer," responded the servant.

Blushing, Sakura located the shoes and slipped them on her feet. She simply wasn't used to this sort of treatment.

Norio was waiting for her outside of the dining hall. "You look lovely."

"Thank you," replied Sakura, still a bit self-conscious in the clothes. She shuffled in her sandals, hoping that they would not fly off her feet. The last thing she needed to do was to bop her host on the head with an errant sandal.

Tomio arrived right after her, his room located in the other direction. "Are we all here?"

Norio nodded. "Father is already inside."

"What of Kakashi?" Sakura did her best not to flinch as Tomio asked of her former teacher. The last thing she wanted to do was spend another evening next to that man.

"Tsh, there is no use in waiting for Cousin. Our sister is already aware of that," Norio said as he opened the sliding door and ushered Sakura in.

She crossed the hall to the table, her feet making tiny clacks as she crossed the room. She wished she was as silent as Norio and Tomio. It made her feel like a herd of elephants.

The man stood up from the table, waving his hand in invitation. "Excellent timing! The servants are about to bring in the food."

Tomio and Norio stepped forward to greet their two hosts with delighted smiles on their faces. Sakura stood at the back, waiting to be introduced and to find out where she would sit. She was grateful when the woman turned to Norio and asked for her name.

"This is Lady Sakura, a kunoichi from Fire Country. Sakura, this is my sister, Mitsuko, and her husband, Hotaka."

"It is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for allowing me in your home," Sakura murmured. Inside she cursed Norio's name; he had failed to mention their final destination would be a family visit. She took her seat at the table nervously.

Fortunately no one noticed her uncertainty as Lord Ehime spoke. "And where are the children? I have yet to see them."

Mitsuko frowned. "One of the maids let it slip that you were visiting. My eldest son recalled that Kakashi was one of your favorite hires. A few months ago he stayed for a few weeks as he waited for a storm to pass in the mountains. The children grew quite fond of Kakashi and were quite vocal this morning as they waited for him. I assume that they found him even before he fully rested. I thought you might be too tired from your journey, so I asked the maid to serve them dinner in the garden when I saw that the children were so excited."

Sakura listened to the story in surprise, remembering her own experiences with Kakashi as a genin. Most of them involved disinterest, porn reading, and chastising statements that were followed by condescending pats on the head. It was hard for her to believe that they would choose Kakashi over their own grandfather.

Lord Ehime frowned unhappily. "But they are my grandchildren, Mitsuko! You deny me the opportunity to see them?"

Sakura winced. Lord Ehime was normally easy going; she hadn't heard him complain during the entire journey. But she completely understood his annoyance; it had to be hard taking second place to Kakashi.

"My apologies, Father, I meant no disrespect. The children can be quite rambunctious but I can call them in if you wish."

Lord Ehime took a sip from his glass. "No, there is no need; the arrangements have already been made. I will greet them after the meal is finished."

Dinner was sedate, with the family speaking briefly on matters that Sakura did not understand. She spent most of her time trying not to fidget and became envious of the children outside. After dinner, the group made their way to the garden. Sakura took a position at the back of the group so they wouldn't notice her blatant ogling of the decor. She had worked for lords and businessmen before but had always observed their estates with mild disinterest. But as a guest of the home everything took on a new perspective. One of the servants caught her however, and she gave him a glare as he laughed silently.

The garden was a large patio before a lush field. The decoration of choice was evergreens planted in enormous pots placed on the stone floor. Most of them were cut out in different forms, save for the row that provided a boundary to the field. At the center was a large fountain; Sakura could see the spikes of Kakashi's grey hair poking up from a jet of water. As she rounded the fountain she was treated with a strange sight of Kakashi with four children at his feet. They were listening to Kakashi in complete silence, popping berries in their mouths as they stared up at him. Sakura took another step closer in order to hear the story better, bumping her arm on Tomio's.

"It was troubling," Kakashi said. "I did not want to participate. I am a peaceful man and I try to avoid confrontation when I can. And yet, a challenge had been issued and the consequences of refusing were gruesome."

"Then what did you do?" one of the girls asked, her lips stained purple with berry juice.

"What I had to. I stared directly into the hairy beast's eyes and accepted the challenge."

The small crowd gasped.

"Didja win?" Said the other girl.

The eldest, a boy of about twelve, waved his hands dramatically. "Don't be stupid, of course he won. The Green Beast of Konoha would have eaten him alive or something if he lost!"

Sakura unsuccessfully tried to contain her snigger and was forced to bury her laughter on the sleeve of her robe. Tomio turned to look at her with a frown.

"Don't call your sister stupid, Hitoshi." Kakashi said gently.

"All right, I won't," he said quickly in agreement. "So what happened next?"

Sakura saw Kakashi's eye cast a glance around the patio as he tried to figure out what to say; it was a gesture she recognized from his many excuses of his tardiness. However, the children thought it was a dramatic pause and tugged at Kakashi's trousers impatiently.

He leaned forward. "The beast was fast but so was I. I was strong, but so was the beast. It knew that I had to outwit the beast. I remembered the tiny bonsai tree I had on my windowsill. A little old lady who I had helped across the street gave it to me as a thank you gift. ' Beautiful things need attention ,' she told me. With this in mind I led the beast to the nearest evergreen tree and asked him to transform the tree into a work of art."

He waved his hand in the direction of one of the nearby garden trees.

"The beast went to work, using sword and strength to change the form of the tree. I climbed up the tree and began to trim some of the dead branches. For months we worked on our respective trees until it was time for the judge to decide. The beast had shaped his into the form of a man and when the judge saw the form he was impressed. He complemented the beast on his choice, for he believed that man was the greatest form of art.

"And then the judge saw my tree. When he saw it, he gasped with surprise and called his mother over. And when his mother saw the tree, she went to call her sister over. And so it went until the entire village was gathered at the tree that I had taken care of. ' You are the winner, ' the judge told me.

"For you see, I had taken care of the tree every day. I removed the dead leaves and branches. I trimmed and pruned and watered it when it was necessary, and left it alone to grow.

"I had kept the tree as a tree. A tree in the shape of a man is half man and half tree. It is interesting, but it is not nearly as beautiful as a tree left to its own devices. I had the best tree anyone had ever seen. It was one that provided lots of shade so that grandmothers could sit without getting burned by the sun and located by a stream so that children could play. It had stayed a tree, but it had also become a gathering place for the village.

"And so I bested the beast. For all of his strength and skill, he did not understand that one cannot change another's nature."

Sakura was so flabbergasted and taken by Kakashi's gentle tone that she failed to recognize the significance of his words.

The eldest child nodded knowingly. "That makes a lot of sense. Tell us another story, Uncle!"

"Mmm… perhaps another time. I believe that your grandfather would like you to say hello to him."

The children turned around in surprise; they had been so engrossed in Kakashi's words they failed to notice the adults' arrival. They stood up and trotted over, half bowing before giving their grandfather a warm hug.

"That is enough for the night, children. It is late enough as it is and your grandfather is tired from the journey." Mitsuko waved a hand at a servant standing in the shadows to usher the children inside. The children pouted as they were led away.

She went forward to tug on one of Kakashi's ears. "Cousin, I thought I asked you to stop telling the children stories of the Green Beast. Now they will be up all night pretending to fight him."

Kakashi wiggled out of her grasp and rubbed at his ear. "I'll have you know that the Green Beast of Konoha does exist. Isn't that right, Sakura?"

"Uh, yes." Sakura could only imagine the crushing disappointment in Gai's face if found out the reputation he was gaining in Snow.

Lord Ehime shook his head. "Hmph. It is somewhat disappointing that the children are more interested in your tales than saying hello to their grandfather. Perhaps I will stay here for an extended visit."

"Then I should notify you that I need to report back to Konoha by the end of July," said Kakashi.

"Ah, yes." Lord Ehime nodded. "Sakura as well, I suppose. I will have Yori arrange for security on the trip back. But that still leaves plenty of time to throw a celebration!"

Sakura was confused when the adults around her began to chuckle.

"I already sent out the invitations when I saw the caravan at the top of the mountain," said Mitsuko. "It is planned for the end of the week. With the entire family gathered in one place, we knew you would be unable to resist a large party."

Sakura groaned in annoyance when she caught a pointed look from Kakashi, the noise was lost amid the boisterous laughter of Lord Ehime. When she made the bet two weeks ago, she thought the odds were in her favor. Kakashi avoided social situations when he could and there was a possibility that he would forget at the time. But it looked like Kakashi had taken Lord Ehime's habits into consideration before he proposed it.

It looked like she would have to pay up on the bet.

~O~

Sakura sat under the afternoon shade reading a well worn book that Norio had let her borrow. It was a very good story and she was grateful that he had good taste. She wasn't out there long before she was approached by Mitsuko.

"So you are the one who is to marry my brother?"

Sakura shut the book and bowed her head. "It is an honor that I cannot place into words."

The woman laughed. 'Well, you have the act straight." She settled herself across the table and shook her head. "A kunoichi…"

"Er, yes?" Sakura replied.

Mitsuko looked at her with narrowed eyes before deciding to proceed.

"My family has always been a bit unconventional. Some lords clung too dearly to their ideals of honor and propriety and because of it they lost their power. My family has not avoided those connections and we are better off for it. I am not surprised that Norio would seek a strong woman; he was always audacious like that."

"Thank you," Sakura responded. She opened her mouth to ask a question, only to pause when she caught sight of a small parade led by the eldest son. Kakashi was next in line; his walking was hindered by a young boy clutching his leg. The two daughters trailed behind him, waving silk ribbons.

Sakura watched the procession in astonishment; Mitsuko laughed in delight. "They do love him."

Sakura took the opening to discover more on the family's elusive connection with Kakashi. "I noticed since they called him 'Uncle.' What is the story behind that?"

"The children took to calling him uncle of their own volition. They knew he was related but not how. He would come for a few days on his way back from a mission and often bring a gift for the children. He delighted the children a few months ago with his stories of the Green Beast of Konoha." She sighed. "I don't know where he comes up with these stories."

Sakura smiled wryly as she looked at Kakashi and the children. "You'd be surprised by how much practice he has in making things up."

Kakashi reached into his pocket and seconds later his nindogs appeared in a series of poofs. He pried the small child off of his leg and lifted him onto the back of the largest dog, Bull. The dog trotted off into the field with the child squealing in delight. The other three children began playing a strange game with the dogs, a combination of fetch and tag. The only sense Sakura could make of the game was that it involved a lot of running around.

"He's very good with children," said Mitsuko.

"That's not fair," groused Sakura. "When I was young, he wasn't ever close to personable. He was okay as a teacher, but he was so distant. Your kids actually like him!"

"Jealous?" asked Mitsuko dryly.

"No! It's just… really strange seeing him act so… nice ." That wasn't quite the word she wanted to use, but this version of Kakashi had her disconcerted.

Mitsuko hummed. "I think he is practicing for children of his own. I know he was considering fatherhood."

Sakura was grateful the woman was not looking in her direction. "Oh? I didn't know that," she lied. "I mean, not that he tells me anything. I didn't even realize that he was related to your family until a few weeks ago."

"I take it he is as tight-lipped as ever." Mitsuko clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "His grandfather and great-aunt came here from Cloud. His grandfather eventually moved to Konoha but his great-aunt married the Lord of Fire Country. However, he died before they gave birth to any children. The family line carried on to the second eldest, my grandfather."

The dogs began to bark loudly as the eldest boy emerged from the shrubs. He began to chase his sisters as he waved the branches enthusiastically in his hands. The two girls began to run towards Kakashi, their ribbons abandoned in their laughter.

"Oh. Thank you for clearing that up." Sakura tore her eyes away from the children. "I think I'll go inside now. It has been a pleasure speaking with you."

Sakura made a hasty exit, not daring to look back at the happy scene behind her.

~O~

The shrill laugh of the blonde behind Kakashi couldn't drown out his question. Sakura bit her tongue, keeping the dirty swears locked in her mouth. She silently prayed for a miracle, hoping that her husband-to-be would insist she remain by his side the entire night.

"Of course, I think it is only fitting that she has a dance with you. You were her sensei once and soon she will be my responsibility. One dance can't hurt," Norio said with an easy smile as he handed her off to Kakashi.

Sakura painted a smile onto her face. "Of course," she replied as Kakashi clasped her hands.

She tried not to think of the abrupt change of Norio's smooth hands versus Kakashi's battle-worn grasp. She tried not to think of how he had dominated her thoughts the entire night and the promise of a dance that left her anxious. Even catching Norio's elusive dimple had not eased her suffering because Kakashi had forgone the mask entirely for the celebration. Sakura had caught brief glimpses at his face throughout the week during meals. However, she was not able to take advantage of it because of her own stubborn resolution to give Kakashi minimal attention.

Sakura tried not to think of her desperate excuse that she had to memorize every angle of his face. That she needed to answer the question that had plagued her since she was twelve and not because her eyes were naturally drawn to him. She tried not to think of the crowd of giggling females who had followed him and their casual speculations of his single status. She tried not to think of how perfect the party had been, and how uncomfortable she felt amidst the lords. And how Kakashi had slid into the role effortlessly, displaying none of the discomfort she felt.

She failed.

Sakura kept her eyes firmly on his shoulder as the music began to play. She was not going to look at his face; she wasn't going to look at his lips. She was going to be gracious even as he teased her and he would not fluster her.

She waited for the teasing and the dry comments to begin. Instead, all Sakura heard was the music from the orchestra. He gave her a spin. She huffed. This was almost… disappointing.

"You're not going to say anything?" she asked, impatiently.

"Why would I?"

"Because… you know!" Sakura did not dare to say the words out loud.

Kakashi spun her around another time. "Hmm… I could, but I think I've made my point."

"So you're giving up?" It came again, the mix of disappointment and hope that caused her insides to squirm.

"Giving up on you? No. But I can't force you to do anything, no matter how stupid I think your decision is. There is only so much I can do; now I have to wait for you to change your mind."

Sakura didn't know what to say to the change in Kakashi's attitude. He seemed more apologetic and disappointed than he had been the entire trip. She had liked the easy relationship they had before, of close acquaintances, the not-quite- friendship. The attack a few weeks ago only served to remind her of how she liked going on missions with him. He had given her an order but had been content to let her take the lead if it was appropriate. A part of her gave a churn as she realized Kakashi would probably disappear once she was married.

She was never very good with words; she favored the option of displaying her emotions physically. Right then Sakura wished she was a poet. She would have given a sincere and beautiful apology that it hadn't worked out and maybe salvaged what little relationship they had.

But she wasn't a poet, so she continued to dance.

Sakura couldn't help but feel a little bad for him when the song ended. "So this is goodbye," she whispered, hoping that he would pick up her weak joke.

He gave her hand a light squeeze. "It's not over yet. I still have another dance with you."

"The promise was only for once to dance," she retorted as she tore her eyes off of his shoulders to glare at him. All melancholy thoughts were wiped from her mind with Kakashi's challenge.

"I know," he replied, giving her a smile. Sakura's heart skipped a beat when she noticed the faint teeth marks under his lip. "If you'll excuse me, the night is young and there is plenty to drink. I have plenty of time to make a stupid decision of my own."

Sakura barely had time to mull on his bizarre statement before Norio was at her side, pulling her by her elbow so he could introduce her to yet another family member. Honestly, she didn't know how to keep any of their names straight. She foresaw her recent future would require going over names like jonin over a new Bingo book. It was getting mentally exhausting.

A short conversation and another dance later and Sakura was ready to leave the crowd.

"Can we take a small break? I'm getting a bit tired." It was a lie, but she was hoping to buy some time away from the dance floor. Her feet were beginning to hurt.

Norio nodded and took her away from the main room and into the hallway.

"I think I could use a bit of air, so could-" Sakura's words were cut off as Norio began to kiss her, his lips moving against hers with surprising passion. Just as she was beginning to get over her initial shock and enjoy it, he withdrew.

"I think a bit of air would be good," Norio said as he gave her a smile. The dimple she had once delighted over materialized, but the appeal had vanished. The kiss had inadvertently reminded her of the bite marks by Kakashi's lips. Sakura wondered who had kissed him so hard to leave a scar.

~O~

Kakashi hastily let go of Sakura's hand when he saw the blonde coming his direction. He had played polite for the beginning of the party because Sakura had owed him a dance. Now that the deal was finished he had no intention of hanging around. He ducked out of the room by using the entrance to the kitchen.

Familiar with the Tora estate, Kakashi made for one of his favorite places, a small hidden balcony that overlooked a courtyard adjacent to the hall. And when he opened the door, he was surprised to see Tomio already there.

Kakashi hesitated at the doorway, uncertain if he wanted to stay.

"I hope you don't mind," he said politely.

"For you? Never," replied Tomio as he moved to allow Kakashi some room.

Kakashi shrugged and placed his elbows on the edge of the railing. Down below, he could see Norio and Sakura swirling in the hall. He took another deep gulp of the alcohol in his glass.

"They are ill-fitting," said Tomio.

"What?" asked Kakashi as the burn faded from his throat.

"The girl. She is ill-suited for Norio."

Kakashi showed no reaction, but was surprised by Tomio's assessment. It appeared he had inherited Lord Ehime's skill of character judgment. Kakashi decided to dig a little deeper.

"What makes you say that? Most are under the impression that she is an excellent choice."

Tomio shrugged. "She is... beautiful. However, she is not fit for the position. I performed a test on her, and she did not pass."

"Oh?" Kakashi was not aware of this.

Tomio nodded. "I told Sakura that she was covered in dirt after we were attacked. She looked at me with indignation and replied that she would worry about it at another time. And yet, if that was another woman, a lady, she would have rushed over to compose herself. I understand why she chose to wait to clean herself up; that is not the issue at hand. The test was whether or not she was ready to clean herself or not." He swirled the drink in his hand. "I do not believe that she will be content in her future role."

Kakashi saw Sakura twirl around in another circle; her hands grazing over the elaborate kimono. He had been astonished by her appearance this evening. Whoever had been in charge of her wardrobe had done an exceptionally good job in finding something for her to wear. He had never had an occasion to see her beyond her everyday clothes. He avoided the festivals that presented the opportunity and he had also been gone for two years. When she appeared that night dressed in red, Kakashi found his breath taken away. Even amid the rich, Sakura stood out with her distinctive beauty. For a brief moment, Kakashi felt extraordinarily pleased with his good taste. His pleasure had turned sour when she turned to the side and allowed Norio to grasp her hand.

Sakura had not been free of him the entire night, tugging along to meet the guests. As the night wore on, it became increasingly apparent how well she played her role. She made an excellent companion to Norio; she was a perfect combination of adventure and beauty. Kakashi had been forced to swallow his pride and admit they looked good together. He modestly asked for a dance, but was also aware that he couldn't push her anymore. The only option left was to be present in her life and hope that she would change her mind.

Kakashi glanced at his companion. Of all people, Tomio could understand unrequited love.

"She was my choice." The words came softly, even before he had time to ponder the effects of his confession. "I had her picked as my wife far before Norio even knew her name."

He couldn't see Tomio's reaction, and for this Kakashi was grateful.

"What happened?"

Kakashi sighed. "I was sent on that damned mission and I arrived too late. She had just announced her engagement the week before."

Tomio chuckled. "Ah time was always your undoing." They stood on the balcony; the music of the orchestra below drifted upwards. "Why her?"

"Because I wanted her. Because I deserve the best." The alcohol was affecting his head and the audacious words slipped from his lips too easily. Kakashi raised the crystal glass once more and downed the rest of the liquid.

"I knew she had the talent and the skill. I knew that she could be brave and wonderful. And I knew that she had the patience to humor my idiosyncrasies. It was what I wanted and she could provide it. But then something went wrong, even before Norio entered her life. I've almost lost her; she doesn't even look at me when she speaks to me now."

"Almost," said Tomio. "Almost is not the end."

Kakashi sighed. "Yes, I know. But there is more to this than I anticipated." He looked down at the hall once more. Sakura had vanished from his window view.

Tomio looked at Kakashi. "Do you love her?" he inquired delicately.

Kakashi hesitated. "I... don't know. Dedicated may be a more prudent word choice."

"Ah." Tomio set his own goblet down. "Do you mind terribly if I ask you for a favor?"

"Go ahead," said Kakashi.

"It so happens that I am here and as are you." Tomio's cheeks turned dark, although Kakashi could not tell if it was a trick of the light or of the alcohol. "Could you spare a kiss?"

Kakashi squirmed, vaguely recalling a similar situation when he was a teenager. At the time he had been a bit too trusting of Tomio, and it cost him a friendship that had decayed into awkwardness.

"Ah, why not? I could use the practice," he replied as he set his glass down on the ledge.

Tomio came forward and hesitantly pressed his lips on Kakashi's.

The first thing that Kakashi noticed was the uncomfortable realization that he had drank a little too much. It had been years since he had kissed another man; any missions that required seduction had vanished as he became well-known. He had forgotten how uncomfortable it made him. He could kiss strange women any day and feel only a mild disinterest. But the jaw was too square, the person too tall, and the sensation of stubble rubbing against his own chin made him wonder when the polite amount of time to withdraw was.

Last time he kissed Tomio was a disaster. He had been chasing after a tall woman, and in his drunken stupor he had made a wrong turn into the shadowy hallway. It had become apparent in the first seconds that the stranger was not the woman he thought, but had proceeded anyway. It wasn't until his shirt was halfway off that he realized it was a bad idea and had pried himself off with a very loud and tactless ' I should tell you I'm not gay.' Even the alcohol in his blood would not allow Kakashi to forget to look of crushing disappointment.

His musings were distracted as Tomio let out a groan.

Kakashi was mentally patting himself on the back when light flooded the balcony.

He tore his mouth off of Tomio's lips to look at the doorway to see Norio and Sakura. Her eyes were so wide Kakashi began to wonder how at what point they would fall out of her face. Norio was looking deeply annoyed.

"Well," said Tomio in disappointment, "so much for that."

 

 

Chapter Text

Sunrise arrived late in the morning in the small village. The Tora Estate was unusually quiet, lacking the usual activity of a typical day. Many of the party attendees had gone to bed late in the night and left remainders of their festivities all about the estate. Tucked into the topiary evergreens were abandoned glasses where the guests had used the trees as makeshift tables. Trash littered the ground and in the courtyard. Corners that were often criticized for poor lighting in the daytime had been exploited for their privacy, leaving behind single earrings and dirty napkins as evidence of tawdry encounters.

The servants had picked up the mess half-heartedly before they sought the comfort of their own beds. They were up once more a few hours later, ready to clean in earnest despite puffy eyes and lack of sleep. They cleaned in silence, none of them wanting to disturb the guests. One servant swept the walkway, the steady swish of his broom the only noise in the lethargic estate.

Away from the mess was Sakura, who was lying in the field by the tree line. She was once again clad in her own clothes, leaving behind the borrowed kimonos provided by the Tora family. The servants had washed and pressed her clothing until it was neat and crisp. She was motionless in the shade, splayed out on the grass like a piece of morbid artwork. As the sun crept up, the shade from the trees shied away from her, exposing the quiet meditation on her face to the world.

"Uuuurrrgghhh," Sakura groaned with all of the aplomb of a wounded cow.

She scrunched her eyes against the light. Realizing that the sun had come out in earnest, she turned onto her belly, her arms flopping ineffectively at her sides.

So much for her meditation , she thought as the grass tickled her nose.

Huffing, Sakura sat up properly and squinted up at the sky. Kakashi had informed her the previous night they were to depart before dawn. She had nodded and planned accordingly, showing up with her bag at the gate two hours late. Even with the generous time adjustment, Kakashi had not shown up as promised. Sakura had waited ten minutes for him before she went to doze under the shade. However, sleep eluded her despite the silence of the estate. Every time Sakura was on the brink of sleeping, her traitorous mind would renew the scandalous image from the previous night. The image of Tomio's hand clutching Kakashi's neck as they kissed, the look of surprise as they were discovered, of Kakashi's tongue as it retreated to his own mouth.

Sakura covered her face as heat crawled up her neck, not all of it caused by her own embarrassment. She needed to get over this.

Just as Sakura was getting comfortable once more, she heard a giggle coming from the trees. She snapped her eyes open just in time to catch sight of one of the daughters crashing through the bushes. The girl gasped when she saw Sakura, stopping to give a short bow and then running to hide behind her.

"Watch out," the girl squeaked as she dove behind Sakura. "He's coming!"

"Who?"

"The Beast," the girl said as she clutched the back of Sakura's shirt.

"Ahhhhh!" The eldest son jumped out of the bushes, waving around a set of tree branches. "Where's the girl?" Hitoshi demanded. He waved the branches around in menace once more.

Sakura heard the girl giggle behind her as she tightened the grip on Sakura's shirt.

"Who are you?" asked Sakura before she had time to stop herself from playing along.

"I am the Green Beast of Kohoha!" said the boy. "And I am the greatest threat you have ever known!"

"Oh?" Sakura stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "I think I can handle you." She tried not to laugh at the branches in Hitoshi's hands; it was most likely that Kakashi had not given the children a description of the Green Beast of Konoha. She wondered if the boy would be so enthusiastic if he knew the Beast wore spandex.

"Nyeah, nyeah," said the girl as she stepped forward to poke a tongue out at her brother before hiding behind Sakura once more.

"That's what you think! But I've done lots of things that you've never dreamed of. I can crush mountains and punch out an elephant and run faster than anyone and… umm…. fly. I'll win!"

Sakura bit her lip to keep the smile spreading from her face. "Okay I believe you Green Beast of Konoha. But I've heard a lot of rumors about you and do you know what they say?"

Hitoshi narrowed his eyes and then shook his head.

Sakura chuckled. "They tell of your greatest weakness."

The boy stepped back, his voice going a bit higher. "What? I don't have any weaknesses."

"It so happens that the Green Beast of Konoha is severely allergic to women," Sakura said, thinking of the real-life counterpart. "One little kiss is all it takes to put you out for good."

The branches in the boy's hands fell to the ground and his mouth dropped open in shock. "I don't think…." Hitoshi's cheeks reddened as Sakura took a step forward. He was at the awkward age of his life where he was of two minds, torn between his gut instincts to run and the other, which couldn't believe his good luck. Hitoshi's indecision ended as Sakura continued to approach and he ran away.

The girl behind Sakura burst out in peals of laughter, a strange noise in the quiet estate. "That was amazing!" she said as she reached into one of her pockets. "I think I should give you a thank you gift. Here." The girl held out a closed fist.

Sakura tried to shoo away the girl with a wave of her hand. "No, no, that's quite all right." The girl's earnest expression was all too familiar and it reminded Sakura of happier times. But that future had vanished.

"You should take this." The girl faced her palm up and opened it to reveal a small green rock in her palm. "It's a jade stone they use to decorate the bottom of the fountain. I took this one because it was shaped weird." The girl raised the stone to her eye and peered at Sakura through the hole in the center.

"I was going to give it to a friend, but I think this one belongs with you. It matches your eyes," she said shyly.

Sakura took the stone, ignoring the squeezing in her chest.

"Thank you," she whispered as the girl smiled and walked away to find another member of her family to play with. The hole in the stone wasn't very big, not even wide enough for her pinky finger to slip through. But it was enough room for a chain to slip through, perhaps as a small necklace or as a decoration.

Sakura placed the stone into a small pocket and crossed her arms in discomfort. She heard more laughter from the courtyard and caught a glimpse of the two girls running by. The sound made her feel lonely, and so she made her way back to the front gate. Norio was waiting for her there, his hair still disheveled from his sleep. Norio's hair was always slicked back and it was rare to see him in such a state. She resisted the urge to sink her fingers into his scalp to ruffle his hair. It was unlikely that Norio would appreciate her actions. The rest of the family was making their way to the gate, Kakashi's hair pinpointing his location at the back.

Sakura took the opportunity to give Norio a hug. His hands came up to drift along her neck and he planted a chaste kiss on her cheek, murmuring that he would send her a letter. She nodded and then turned to say her goodbyes to the rest of the family. Mitsuko gave a polite hug, but Lord Ehime gave her an enthusiastic hug. Sakura gave a small wink to the eldest son, who turned bright red at the attention. The pair of girls giggled.

Sakura tried her best not to stare at Tomio, for she already knew she wouldn't find a signs of his sexual preference by sight. She hadn't suspected anything before and the scene last night had caught her terribly off-guard. She had fled the balcony to the brightly lit hall and spent the remainder of her evening trying to ignore what she had seen. As the night wore on, she recalled some of the oblique statements made by the family, and why Norio was considered the heir to the family.

Tomio turned to look at her, his gaze unflinching and judgmental. Sakura flushed and hastily turned her attention back to Norio.

"Cousin," Norio said in a cool voice, "I hope your travels are well." He moved to the side to allow Kakashi to approach the gate.

"Yes, I imagine…" Norio had begun to walk away even before Kakashi had finished. Sakura frowned; Norio was clearly irritated by something.

Kakashi coughed into his hand. "Tomio, it was a pleasure catching up," he said politely.

Sakura stared at the ground with all of the interest she could muster. It was very awkward now that it was just the three of them.

"Yes. Good day, Kakashi. Lady Sakura." Tomio said just as graciously, giving one last look to her companion.

Sakura gave a small nod as the last member of the family went back to the house. Kakashi had already begun to turn around and was walking down the road. It wasn't long before they were hiking up the mountain and climbing out of the village.

Sakura had plenty of questions that she wanted to ask him. Was he gay? Was he bisexual? Was his proposal to her merely a flight of fancy? Was he really interested in children and thought she would be a suitable carrier?

Sakura kicked one of the nearby rocks in frustration. It rocketed forward and smacked loudly against a tree, a noise that echoed in the mountain. Kakashi grunted as he lifted a hand to his forehead. Sakura snuck a peek at him. Kakashi didn't seem gay. And some of the things he had said to her were a little bit too personal. He wouldn't have bothered with all of this effort if he wasn't serious. He was still a lazy person after all. Facetious actions were not his style at all.

If he wasn't gay, what was it that she had walked in on? Perhaps Kakashi thought Tomio was a stud and couldn't resist.

Sakura glanced at him once more. His hand was still against his forehead and he made no mention of the subject. No doubt Kakashi was hoping she would start talking about it first. And then he would use her embarrassment and come out the winner in their little duel of words like he always did.

If Sakura wanted to address the situation and come out with her pride intact, she would have to make him talk about it first. With her determination set, Sakura continued up the mountain. But with little else to entertain her, all she could remember was Kakashi's lips against another man's. She remembered that odd scar by his lip and the careless toss of his hair.

The road underneath her feet had turned to gravel, the remains of large boulders that were shattered under the storms of Snow Country. It was somewhat irritating that every step they took was accompanied by a noisy crunch as the rocks shifted underneath. She glanced at Kakashi again in wonder, concerned of his possible hangover. The noise couldn't be good for his head. To her irritation, he seemed preoccupied and seemed happy to continue their nonchalant climb up the mountain. He didn't even seem inclined to acknowledge the sticky situation Sakura found him in. Last night's kiss was a subject that neither of them wanted to address. They didn't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. It was the elephant in the room.

A Giant Gay Elephant.

She snorted. The gravel continued to complain under her feet, disguising the small noise of her amusement.

"Hee hee hee."

That one came out a bit louder, but Kakashi's only reaction to her was the slight twitch of her shoulder.

"Heh heh heh!"

Kakashi turned to the sniggering woman next to him. "Are you done yet?"

Sakura wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at him, only to burst in another round of laughter. She had now abandoned the journey, far too busy clutching the sides of her stomach. Sighing, Kakashi continued his journey up the mountain, pressing the bridge of his nose to relieve the pressure from his pounding head.

It wasn't his intention to travel back to Konoha the day after the party. However, Tsunade had sent a message to him early in the week with a mandatory arrival date.

Most of the guests were relaxing in the Tora Estate for another day, taking their time with the preparations for their journey back home. There was only one proper exit out of the valley and if Kakashi waited he would be caught behind a slow-moving crowd and show

up late for Tsunade's announcement. He had little choice but to depart immediately.

It meant he had to travel with a bit of a hangover. He really had not meant to drink that much.

Sakura cackled once more.

This is all her fault, thought Kakashi.

If she hadn't shown up so utterly perfect he would have been able to control himself. If she hadn't looked so right next to Norio then he would have been able to continue his little conquest for her hand in marriage with peace of mind. If Sakura hadn't looked like she belonged, he wouldn't have brooded on the balcony. He wouldn't have said yes to that damn kiss. And he most certainly would have not been caught making out with a man. Then he wouldn't have taken that entire bottle of alcohol and locked himself in the kitchen.

"Bwahahahahaha!"

Oh, yes. Definitely her fault.

He hadn't said anything to her the night before, only shrugging his shoulders, picking up his woefully empty glass and heading for the hallway. And Sakura had avoided eye contact for the first two hours. But now she seemed to have found the tense situation riotous.

"Will you please stop that?" His nausea had faded, but the headache had not, settling tension behind his eyes. There was a good thing about the situation. Sakura's timid attitude disappeared as soon as she got away from Norio, the lords, and the rich. It was like she had come back to life.

Kakashi knew a thing or two about that.

As much as he appreciated the delicate beauty of "Lady Sakura," that personality seemed to have been born out of desperation. The Sakura next to him was the one he preferred. She was the one he pinned his hopes on, the one with a wide smile, confident attitude, and a shameless laugh. A little humiliation was a worthy price of returning one of his favorite people back to normal.

Kakashi sighed as he heard her scuttle to catch up with him. "Should I expect the story to make the rounds when we get back to Konoha?" He certainly hoped not, that would certainly put a dent in his respectability.

"No." Sakura waved her hand dismissively. "Who wants to hear about that?"

Kakashi blinked. "I thought you would take advantage of the opportunity." The news was a great relief and he concentrated once more on the simple process of placing one step in front of another.

"Well, yes. I thought about it." Sakura's voice turned strangely detached. "But I think everyone in Konoha at least one gay story."

Kakashi's mind was a finely tuned instrument. In battle, he memorized jutsus by the dozens. He analyzed the opponent with a keen eye and tried to anticipate enemy attacks, a skill that had served him well for thirty years. Outside of a mission, his mind sought the pleasant distraction of a raunchy story, Icha Icha at the pinnacle. And now Sakura, his lovely Sakura , had presented him with a delicious opportunity to combine these two honed skills. Genius that he was, Kakashi's mind had little choice but to plummet straight down into a Canyon of Debauchery.

Oh the possiblities…

Sakura seemed not to have noticed his distraction. "Nope, I'm keeping what I saw to myself. If I tell people it means everyone could tease you about it." She gave him a pleasant smile.

Kakashi's mind weakly fought to climb out of the Canyon of Debauchery, desperate to have a conversation with her that wasn't tainted by his own imagination. But it was very hard when Sakura chose that moment to set her pack down and give him a perfect view of her rear. And with his hangover still in place, he didn't have the willpower to fight it. Instead, Kakashi chose to trail his eyes up the length of her legs in appreciation.

Sakura looked back at him over her shoulder, her hair partly covering her face. "You must be throbbing."

His heart stopped beating. "I… what?"

Sakura straightened and made her way over to him. "Does it need a massage?"

Kakashi took a few steps back and caused gravel to skitter down the mountain. "No, no that's not necessary." He had to have heard her wrong.

She frowned. "You don't have to deal with that hangover, or have you forgotten that I'm a medic-nin? I can get rid of the headache."

"Ah..." The amount of disappointment that filled him was absurd.

The fight went out of him, he allowed Sakura to take off his forehead protector. Her fingers pressed against his temples, sending a gentle pulse of chakra through his head. Kakashi shut his eyes in relief as he felt the tension dissipate. Most medics didn't bother with headaches; they didn't have the talent to mess with something tied so close to the brain. He let out a sigh of relief when she was done and opened up his eyes lazily to look at her.

Sakura was smiling mischievously as her fingers slid upwards to thread in between the locks of his hair, the tips of her fingernails scraping along his scalp. The sensations were oddly relaxing and at that moment Kakashi wanted nothing more than to lean against her so she could continue for the next few hours.

Disappointingly, she removed her hands with her cheeks tinted pink in her self-consciousness. Sakura chose to hand over his forehead protector without eye contact. They continued their journey up the mountain and Kakashi racked his brain to continue the conversation.

"So the scene from last night is going to remain our little secret?"

"Even if I told the village about your kiss they wouldn't get the full effect. The best part of the whole thing was the look on your face. If I had a camera I would have taken a picture. That would have paid for my meals for the rest of my life!"

He looked at her in surprise. "I don't know about that."

She nodded emphatically. "Oh yes it would. Most people are used to seeing you with your mask on and it is hard to catch you off guard. Having both of those experiences at the same time is a huge bonus. Plus, the kiss itself…" Sakura looked at him furtively.

"What?" he asked with as much innocence as he could muster. She shook her head in response, determined to stay away from his baiting. Kakashi nodded in understanding. "Mmm… I see. It was sexy."

Sakura choked on her laughter, surprised by his bold statement. He smiled when she did not deny his words and chose to continue the conversation from a different angle.

"It is about time I had something good to hold over you anyway. This covers all the harassment you've given me."

"Payback?"

She giggled once more as they passed a road sign. "That's right." She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Race you to the next village," she exclaimed as she took off up the mountain.

Kakashi blinked at the pink dot that was rapidly getting smaller. It was hard to believe that this was the same girl who had timidly held his hand the previous night, a beautiful woman who was fearful of his words and bland in personality. Now she was acting like his proposal had never happened, back to the time when he was teasing her about bad haircuts and questionable flower pods. Sakura, Kakashi realized, responded to his vulnerability.

Pleased with this discovery, Kakashi started to run after her.

~O~

The announcement arrived in the mailbox the day after Sakura returned to Konoha, a brief message to meet at the Hokage Tower after lunch. Sakura gave it a cursory glance before stuffing it in the waste bin, far more interested in the large letter that bore the Ehime crest.

She ogled at the contents, one of which was a drawing of the outfit she would wear during her marriage ceremony. She needed company to appropriately drool over the outfit and set off to the marketplace. Sakura found Ino and Tenten in a small restaurant, their meals arriving as she plopped down on a seat next to them.

Sakura stuck her hand in the envelope and handed it to Ino. "Take a look at this." Ino was always visiting the seamstress to look over formal kimonos, even though she couldn't afford them.

"Oh my." Ino's face turned a little pink. Sakura used the distraction to snag a bit of food from both her companion's plates.

"Wow," said Tenten. "That's… uh… detailed."

"Can you believe how gorgeous this is?" Sakura sighed happily as she nibbled on a piece of pork.

"That isn't the word I would use." Ino smiled coyly. "I take it back. Norio is not a total idiot."

Tenten giggled. "Even if he was, as long as he did that it wouldn't be so bad."

"What?" Sakura yanked the page out of Ino's hands and realized that it wasn't the drawing of her wedding outfit. Instead it was a very detailed description of the many things Norio could do with his hands, his mouth and his….

Sakura stuffed the page in the envelope with shaking hands and took out the illustration.

"Here," she said, the embarrassment not yet gone from her cheeks.

"Ooooohh," they cooed in unison.

"I'd almost marry him for that," said Ino.

Tenten nodded. "Me too. And I'm not even really into that sort of thing."

Sakura frowned. "You two wouldn't marry Norio? What's that supposed to mean?" She felt possessive of him; he really had been good to her during their trip to Snow.

The other two glanced at each other.

"Look, it's not as if we really know the guy, so this is just our opinion," Tenten began. "I couldn't take it. All of those rules and perceptions are annoying. You have to listen to what your husband says and shut up. I'll pass."

"Me too." Ino nodded. "Look at Hinata. She has all of these standards to meet and she's in a clan. It has to be worse for daimyos."

Sakura opened her mouth to protest and then recalled how Minako acted at times. And by anyone's standards the Ehime family was relaxed. There were a few women at the party that had less personality than Sai. Sakura shook her head and dropped the subject, knowing that it would be impossible for her to win them over. When Sakura finished she waved goodbye to Ino and set off with Tenten to the Hokage Tower.

"So do you know what this is about?" Sakura asked as she avoided a child who was running down the street.

Tenten shrugged. "Nope. I didn't even get a chance to ask anyone else. I had to get a physical this morning so I spent most of the time in the waiting room."

"Darn." They rounded a building to see the street filled with ninjas on their way inside the tower.

"Tch."

Sakura turned around to see Shikamaru standing behind her. "Spill," she said as she turned around and raised her fist.

He had sped up as she turned, mysteriously ending up in front of her. "Isn't it obvious?" he said, holding the door open with his foot.

"Er… Sakura looked around to the assembled crowd and waved to Neji across the hall. "No." The room was pockmarked with holes where Tsunade's temper had caused objects to go flying.

Shikamaru grumbled. "You'll find out soon enough. Although I don't see the point, it's obvious the decision has already been made."

Sakura was about to ask further questions when she heard a moan of unhappiness. Standing on her tiptoes, she saw Yamato bury his head in his hands.

"Unbelievable. Why is today the day you show up on time?" he bawled as Kakashi crossed the room.

Yamato wasn't the only one vexed; there were more than a few jonin reaching into their pockets and handing over fistfuls of cash into Kakashi's gloved hands. Sakura snickered. She was glad that she had missed him when he proposed it; she would have placed her entire life savings on that bet. Some people were still grumbling when Tsunade entered the room.

She looked at them with a serious face. "Hello, everyone. I am certain that most of you have figured out why we are gathered here today. I have decided to step down as Hokage."

Sakura's jaw dropped in astonishment. She thought Tsunade would have warned her of all people. But she was one of the few who hadn't seen it coming as there were quite a few jonins who were nodding their heads in understanding like Shikamaru.

Tsunade smiled in approval. "I've already chosen my successor to make this easy on all of us. Get up here, Kakashi."

Kakashi stepped forward from the crowd and made his way to the front.

"So that's why you're on time!" grumbled Yamato.

Kakashi turned to face the room, his hands placed casually in his pockets as if he had not been nominated for one of the most powerful positions in the world. It would have been a very respectable scene if it weren't for the bet money that was bulging obscenely out of his pockets.

"I know that most of you have worked with him and I am certain that most of you saw this coming." Tsunade rolled her eyes. "However, I've been told that the jonin vote is a noble tradition and is required for the post to be official."

"What about Uzumaki?" said a man whose face was heavily bandaged. "I thought it was his dream to become Hokage." Sakura noticed that this man's pockets were clearly empty and wondered how much Kakashi had conned out of him.

Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "You tell the brat to abandon his post along the border and come here for some paperwork and see how long that lasts." There were a few chuckles and she continued. "I've already set out invitations for a party. So raise your hands to approve Hatake and we'll celebrate with a festival for the rest of the week. There's nothing like alcohol to soothe the loss of a bet."

"She would know," muttered Shikamaru.

Sakura groaned as she recalled her bet with Kakashi, undoubtedly there would be some sort of dance during the festival. She would have to dance with him twice in one month! She slapped her hand to her face as she recalled Lord Ehime's obscure statements. They had both known that Kakashi would take the post of Hokage by the end of July.

She felt an elbow dig into her side as Tenten poked her. "Sakura!"

"What?" she hissed back, annoyed by Tenten's rude interruption to her thoughts.

Sakura heard Tsunade clear her throat. "Well, that is it. Hatake is the new Hokage of Konoha with a final vote of seventy-three to one." The annoyance from her voice was unmistakable.

Sakura felt the blood drain from her face as some of the jonin turned to her. She had been so preoccupied with her thoughts she hadn't paid attention to the vote, making her the lone voice of dissatisfaction.

"Oh crap," she muttered.

Sakura looked up to the front to see Tsunade was frowning at her unhappily. It was a look that promised swift and painful retribution of some kind. Kakashi was nonplussed; clearly he knew the thoughts that left her so distracted. He chose to give her a cheeky wink, unseen by the crowd of jonin who were too busy staring at her.

A howl of disappointment broke the uneasy silence, an unnaturally masculine wail.

"Sakura, how could you? He was your teacher!" Gai questioned as the tears streamed down his face.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sakura groaned as she heard a sharp rap on her door, grabbing the pillow and holding it tight over her head. She climbed out of bed five minutes later when the knocking had not stopped. She gave her hair a few pats to tame the wildest strands, slipped on a robe and made her way to the door.

The culprit was one of her least favorite people, a middle-aged man with thinning hair who lived down the hall. Sakura didn't know his name or occupation but as far as she could tell, his sole existence was to annoy every person in the apartment building. There wasn't a tenant in the building who had escaped his sharp eye. He had complained that Ms. Tokushima from next door cooked too often, and his weight gain was all her fault.

It was because of him that Sakura could no longer enter her apartment through the window. He had argued to the landlord that the complex would go downhill in quality if the practice continued. He argued that no one would be able to tell the difference between a thief and a tenant. Sakura thought it was a stupid reason because there were only two types of criminals in ninja villages. The first type were high ranked ninjas that were too sneaky to be caught skulking around a residence.

The second type of criminals were dead ones.

Sakura knew she was in for a bad day when she saw him standing at her door with his face drawn in unhappiness. Nonetheless, she gave a polite smile. "Yes?"

"Haruno, follow me."

"Um… can you hold on for a minute? I just woke up and I need some shoes." She wiggled her toes on the carpet.

"There will be no need." He strode down the hallway to the stairwell expecting her to follow him. Sakura scowled but followed anyway. Past experiences had taught her it was easier to go with his whims to send him on his way as quickly as possible. So she followed him down the stairs and to the entrance of the complex.

"What is that?" she asked as she gaped at the entrance. The other side of the glass door was covered in some sort of white material that restricted the light and view.

"You tell me," her neighbor sniffed. "Read the note taped to the door."

Sakura frowned and made her way to the entrance and found the tiny scrap of paper.

Haruka, how dare you defy our new Hokage!

"There is a rumor in town that you were the only one who did not approve of our new leader," said her neighbor in an icy tone. "Some of the villagers took upon themselves to defend his honor by vandalizing our building. As this is your fault, I will inform the landlord to bill you accordingly for any cleaning fees."

She winced. At least the vandals got her name wrong; there was a slight possibility she could show her face outside and people wouldn't harass her.

"I'm certain that the village will get over it in no time. I'll take care of the mess," Sakura said. She had plenty of time to clean it since almost everything had shut down for the week for the holiday. Konoha never had an opportunity to pass the mantle of Hokage during a time of peace and they were milking it for all it was worth.

She gave the entrance door a push and then frowned when it didn't open. She gave it another shove.

"The vandals interfered with the door as well," her neighbor said in a derisive tone.

Sakura turned to give her neighbor the most polite smile she could, resisting the urge to grab him by the neck and giving him a good shake.

"Oh! Well, just let me…" she hit the glass door with her fist, causing the door to shatter into several large panes of glass.

Since he was holding Sakura responsible, she might as well take the easy way out. As she bent down to lift one of the pieces of glass, she caught a whiff of something rotten. Leaning forward to get a better look, Sakura recognized the material that was blocking the doorway. They were the same durable kind of bandages that were commonly used for Tiajutsu experts. She jabbed the glass into the obstruction and sliced downward in one smooth action, then promptly gasped in horror.

"Ewww," she exclaimed as she covered her nose with the sleeve of her bathrobe.

She heard her neighbor swear. As Sakura turned around she saw his feet disappearing into the stairwell as he fled to the safety of his apartment. As much as she wanted to follow, she had to find out where the atrocious smell was coming from. Unhappily, Sakura stepped through the crispy bandages to investigate the source.

It was her apartment building.

Her eyes began to water as she gazed at a deluge of rotten vegetables and broken egg shells on the pavement. The vandals were obviously ninja who had gone to extremes to defend their new Hokage. Instead of toilet paper, all five floors had been wrapped in bandages. It was likely they had raided the hospital in order to attack her building. The wrappings were covered in brownish film where dozens of eggs had been tossed. The vegetables had been dumped from the roof to cover the side of the building. Sakura eyed a mushy tomato that had left behind a grotesque line of slime during its slow descent from the roof to the bottom floor. To top the whole thing off, her vandalized apartment was cooking in the July heat.

Sakura, along with all of her neighbors, lived in a giant, spoiled omelet.

It was only nine in the morning and the stench would only grow worse as the day wore on. She shook her fist in anger at the bright sun, an accomplice to her unfortunate predicament, only to gag when she caught an unvarnished breath of air . She needed to get back inside.

Sakura gasped in relief as she slipped back into the stairway and plodded up to her apartment. So much for her week off, she would be lucky if she could clean the entire place in that time. She went through her closet, trying to find the most appropriate clothing suitable for cleaning a landfill.

When she made it back outside ten minutes later, Sakura was surprised to find a group of ninja were already cleaning. They were still young, most likely they were the genin who had graduated in the past year. Some of them were hacking away at the crusty bandages, while others were picking up the rotten vegetables and throwing them in garbage bins. All of them had been outfitted with masks, giving Sakura the impression she was surrounded by a small army of Kakashi impersonators.

She found the original version perched on a rooftop across the street. Curious, she made her way over to him.

"What are you doing here?" she asked as she looked up to him from the street below.

Kakashi lowered himself to sit down on the edge of the roof. "I paid for a D-ranked mission to clean up this mess. Most of the jonin instructors passed out after last night, so there was no one to supervise the operation. I want to make certain I get my money's worth, so here I am. "

"I'm surprised you haven't passed out as well." She climbed up the building and took a seat next to him, dangling her feet over the edge.

He coughed. "I'm staying away from alcohol."

"You don't want to get caught kissing another man in public?" she teased.

Kakashi arched an eyebrow. "First of all, I kissed him in private. You and Norio were the ones who rudely interrupted. Second, Tomio was very polite when he asked, and so I obliged. Third, you should be kind to me since I am the one paying for your cleaning service."

Sakura wiggled in guilt. "Why are you doing this?" She didn't like the idea of being indebted to him.

"I could smell this mess from across the village. We'll have visitors in Konoha by tomorrow and I can't have the entire village smelling like Mud Country because of your apartment building."

"I would have cleaned it up," she said hotly. "I'm not irresponsible enough to leave the place like this!"

"You're welcome."

She flushed. "You didn't have to do this for me." She looked out at the genin cleaners who were freeing her apartment from its bindings. Her eyes began to water as a strong breeze sent the odor in their direction.

"It wasn't a problem. I have a bit of extra cash right now." Kakashi reached into his pocket to remove a wad of money. He peeled off a crisp bill and offered it to her. "Tissue?"

She snorted and put her hand over her nose. "Just how much money did you make off of that bet?"

He chuckled. "I show up late because of poor habits that I have carefully nurtured into personality traits. But I can tell time and I will pay attention to the clock now that I'm in charge of running this village. I thought a bet was an excellent way to enforce the point." Sakura heard the money ripple enticingly in the air as he shook his hand before placing it back in his pocket.

She wrinkled her nose as another gust of air came. Holding her sleeve to her face wasn't enough. Kakashi was remarkably casual about the stench. "How is this not bothering you?"

He pointed to his face. "I wear a mask."

Sakura frowned. "You have one of the best noses in the village; the smell has to be worse for you than me." She gave his cheek a small poke and felt the soft yield of cotton. "How many masks do you have on?"

He cleared his throat. "I have no idea what you are talking about."

"Five?"

He said nothing, turning away from her to survey the small genins. Sakura examined his profile and noticed that his nose had mysteriously vanished under the layers of his masks.

She tried another guess. "Eight?" Kakashi gave her a glare in response and she giggled. "Can you even breathe under all of that material?"

"Air is for the weak," Kakashi responded blithely. She smiled under her sleeve, and watched him dig into his pocket once more. This time he removed a piece of blue material from his hand. "I brought a few extra masks for the team. You should put one on as well; it does miracles," he said as he held up a spare mask.

"I don't know…" Sakura wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea. She let out a squawk of indignation as Kakashi ignored her protests and pulled the material over her head. "Kakashi, what do you think you're doing!" She smacked away his hands from her head.

He looked at her with his eye crinkled in that infuriatingly annoying curve of happiness. "See?"

Sakura clenched her teeth, longing to wipe the smug look off of his face. The anger vanished when she inhaled. Instead of the horrific odor of decaying vegetables, Sakura was blessed with the enticing scent of soap, toothpaste, and aftershave. Her arms descended from their defensive position so she could curl her fingers under the edge of the roof. Aftershave meant that he had used the mask before and that his lips had been pressing against the material that she was wearing. Her hands tightened their grip on the roof.

She shouldn't have found the situation so intimate.

Mute, Sakura nodded in response.

"Well, now that you are comfortable I'll leave you to watch the team. There's plenty of work to be done and I know you'll make certain that it is completed." Kakashi nodded at her and then vanished in a puff of smoke. As soon as she saw he was gone, her fingers relinquished their tight grasp from the roof to press the mask into her face. Sakura took a deep breath and smiled in contentment as scent invaded her brain.

Mmm, they should bottle this smell.

~O~

"Frshhh….lighten up, will ya?" Genma said as he waved around a very large glass of alcohol. "This is your celebration, live a little!"

Kakashi continued to look at his friend in boredom. "I'm perfectly fine."

It was the last day of the festival and tomorrow everything would be business as usual. It was something that brought Kakashi great relief. He had spent most of his time in the past week talking to individuals who didn't know him very well. Villages were never comfortable with a leader under their forties and even someone with Kakashi's reputation was subject to scrutiny. Some of the older members still viewed him as an impetuous child despite the three decades of experience. And some didn't quite understand why Tsunade had stepped down, especially since her age-defying jutsu kept her age hidden. The week had been filled with tedious conversation as Kakashi tried to set some of them at ease. The strongest protestations had come from the civilians who never had an opportunity to accompany him in battle. They only knew Kakashi from the street when he was reading Icha Icha or mooching dinner off from a friend. Not exactly the most compelling traits they wanted in a village leader.

The only benefit to this political morass was his requirement to stay far, far away from alcohol. Sakura was supposed to meet him this evening for his dance, and the last thing he wanted to do was have another humiliating moment. It was lucky enough that Sakura had viewed his kiss with Tomio with amusement rather than gossip fodder.

Kakashi shook his head. "Genma, I can't drink right now. There are too many people here who are waiting for me to make a fool of myself." He had barely managed to escape the salacious advances by Anko.

Genma leaned forward, observing him with narrowed eyes. "You seem too uptight. Maybe you need to get laid?"

It was then that Kakashi caught sight of Naruto and Sakura joining the party in the open field. She was wearing a sleeveless green dress and her hair was twisted up to expose her neck and shoulders. "That would be nice," Kakashi replied absently.

He felt Genma slap him on the pack and fling an arm over his shoulder. "Then it's settled, we will get you a lady-friend." He nudged Kakashi with his other hand, splashing a bit of alcohol on Kakashi's Hokage robes. "I'm sure there's got to be a woman around here that wouldn't mind helping you out. Or a prostitute." Genma nodded and made his way through the congregation of people in search of such a woman.

Kakashi watched Genma's unsteady progression through the crowd as he made his way over to a crowd of scantily dressed women. When Kakashi turned around he saw Sakura had already made her way over, standing behind him with a brilliant smile and a plunging neckline.

"Hello Sakura," he said. The dress was tighter than he thought. And shorter.

"Hi." She gave him a very obvious once over. "Nice robes. Where's the hat?"

He waved vaguely over his shoulder. "Somewhere over there. Either that or I left it at home. I believe you owe me a dance."

Sakura chewed at her lip. "I know." He saw her twist her head slightly to see Hinata and Ino at a nearby table. He was somewhat disappointed by her embarrassment.

"Think of it as your apology for not voting for me," he said as he pulled her by the elbow to the crowd of dancers.

Sakura moaned. "Can you leave that alone? I've been paying for that all week."

Kakashi chuckled. "One vote was all I needed to have a perfect score, something nobody else has had before. It's somewhat humiliating that you were the one who ruined it."

"Now you know how we felt when we were genin. It was so embarrassing that you spent half of your time reading porn instead of teaching us." Sakura gave him a weak smile.

"Is something wrong?"

"No," she said. It was almost insulting that she lied to him, as if he couldn't see how her demeanor changed with a small hint of Sasuke. His hand pressed more firmly on her back and she leaned in closer.

The song ended, but Sakura continued dancing, her mind occupied with other thoughts. Kakashi cleared his throat to catch her attention. She looked at him quizzically.

"The song is over," he said as he nodded to the other couples that were making their way to the tables.

"Oh," she said in disappointment. After a small hesitation, Sakura raised her arms and wrapped them around his neck. In that brief moment, he heard her take a deep breath. When she drew back, her distant expression had morphed into a smile of contentment. Sakura patted the robes on his chest to smooth out some nonexistent wrinkles.

"Enjoy your night," she said as she teetered off in Naruto's direction.

Kakashi watched her walk away, resisting the urge to go after. It was doubtful that Sakura was even aware of how she had leaned into him, or how she breathed him in. She was beginning to turn to him, even if she didn't fully comprehend.

Kakashi's musings disappeared when he heard a screech of indignation that drew everyone's attention.

"There's no way!"

He winced as he recognized Anko's voice. The sophisticated party was about to go downhill very quickly. His suspicions were confirmed as he saw her climb up on a table with a bottle of alcohol and give it a swig.

"It's true! I can drink more than you!" A woman climbed up on another table, giving Kakashi a clear view of the speaker. She was an emissary from Mist, a kunoichi he knew very well. Anko didn't stand a chance.

A large group of people made their way over to the women, eager to be spectators to inevitable challenge. Among them was Genma, who had clearly forgotten all about his promise to Kakashi.

Sensing an opportunity to escape the party, Kakashi made his way to the bridge that led back to the main part of the village. He passed by Naruto and Kiba, who were deeply engrossed in conversation. As he crossed, he was accompanied by an old lady, one who looked a tiny bit familiar.

She nodded at him in recognition. "I knew that you were an exceptional shinobi, but I didn't know you were up for Hokage," she said as she gave his arm a pinch. It was Sakura's neighbor, Ms. Tokushima. Kakashi's stomach rumbled as it recalled her divine cooking.

"Evening," he said. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Yes, yes." She nodded as she examined him from head to toe. "You look very good in the Hokage robes. You look as natural in it as the Third."

Kakashi tugged at one of the sleeves, giving it an unhappy frown. "The village elders were quite insistent that I wear them for the festival."

"You don't like them?" Ms. Tokushima shook her head in disappointment. "It's a very good look for you."

He stopped as they reached the other side of the bridge. "I've worn the jonin uniform for years. Before, I was in ANBU and before that I wore anything I could find in my size. I feel a bit uncomfortable not wearing a uniform."

"You could always have something custom made."

Kakashi knew he could be a bit smug at times but he wasn't that conceited. "Ah, I don't think I'm interested."

Ms. Tokushima clucked. "Don't be ridiculous. You are the Hokage of this village and you deserve something that makes you shine out from the rest. I do modifications of the uniform for my sons. If you come to my apartment tomorrow morning, I could have something arranged for you by the end of the week."

He looked at her dubiously. "You wouldn't mind?"

"Of course not. The leader of the village should have something exceptional and I would love to think of something. I hope you don't mind keeping an old lady like me company for a few hours and stay for a meal."

Free food? "In that case, I think I'll be more than happy to stop by." He waved goodbye to Ms. Tokushima and made his way over to the hospital. Tsunade was exiting as he arrived, a thick file clutched in her hands and travel bag on her shoulders.

"Going somewhere?" Kakashi asked as he removed the file from her hands. He could see Sakura's name scribbled by the lamplight. Tsunade's response was a sharp smack to his head.

He grunted in surprise. "My apologies."

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Hmph. You're always giving me cheek, as if I require your permission to leave the village."

Kakashi knew that it was impossible to see the toll that the year had taken on her. Her Transformation Technique was flawless, but in the dim lighting, it could almost see the time etched on her face. Then he blinked and the vision was gone.

He held up the file. "Is everything I need here?

She nodded. "Yes. Although I think your plan is a bit foolish."

Kakashi hummed in response. He did not expect her to understand his request. In fact, he wasn't even certain if his next move was appropriate. But after watching the Mist kunoichi challenge Anko to a drinking contest instead of a battle, he was certain that there was no better time than the present. Barring the appearance of any troublesome ninja, they had a solid decades worth of peace to look forward to.

"She's not going to be happy you left," Kakashi said as they walked down the empty streets.

Tsunade snorted. "Sakura isn't happy now. She'll get over the news quickly enough. I'll be back in a few months, definitely before spring of course." She paused at the street that would lead her to the exit. "Take care of her."

They parted ways as Tsunade made her way out of the village and Kakashi headed to the building next to the Hokage Tower. He nodded at the two Anbu guards that were standing at the entrance of his new home and entered.

It was strange that he now had guards.

Kakashi shut the door behind him, drowning out the noise of the first fireworks with a simple click. He gazed at his new home as he placed the thick file on a nearby table. The front room had been assembled with some of his belongings and some new furniture. Most of the house was overrun by small gifts he had yet to unwrap. The presents had come from all over the country when they learned of Kakashi's new post, and he hadn't bothered to open them yet. There was a large rug propped up against the wall, a gift from the Raikage. Kakashi could see the flashes of light from fireworks from the windows. There was a box on the kitchen table that contained a china set, but when he opened his cabinets, he was greeted with the familiar paw-printed mug of his youth. The bathroom was three times larger than his old one and the warm water faucet didn't squeak when he twisted it. There were three empty rooms waiting for a purpose, filled with gifts. And then Kakashi went into his room.

His new bed was large.

His old bed had only enough room for one. Kakashi rarely moved when he slept, far too accustomed to random sleeping positions in missions. Any sexual encounters occurred at the female's residence. But now, his new and generous sleeping area only served to highlight his woefully empty personal life.

Thank goodness for the obscene amount of pillows.

Kakashi flung off his Hokage robes and made his way to the bathroom. He had just finished brushing his teeth when he heard a knock on the door. He made his way over to the door and opened it.

The guard seemed very uncomfortable. "Hokage-sama, there is a visitor here for you. She claims that she is expected."

Kakashi stared at the door in suspicion, for he had made no such request. "I didn't ask for anyone. Send her away," Kakashi said as he made to shut the door

The Anbu guard leaned in a little. "Hokage-sama, I mean no disrespect but I think she is a lady of the night. "

Kakashi stared at the guard before clearing his throat with a small cough. "Ah... well, then… you can send her in."

He wasn't quite certain why a prostitute was here. While it was likely Genma was able to locate a woman, it was also likely she would have ended up going home with Genma, forgetting all about Kakashi. If some miracle occurred and Genma had stayed on task, he would have shown up in person to collect a personal thank you.

He crossed to the other side of the room and took a seat on the couch. The door opened and Kakashi's breath hitched when she entered the room.

The black dress she wore was unnaturally tight, accentuating a number of curves that were beguiling. Her black hair came down in a curtain behind her back and lips painted a rich red. She smiled at him coyly as she shut the door behind her.

"Hokage-sama," she said, her voice coming out in a delicious purr. "I heard about your new position, and I simply knew that I had to make the time to see you. I've heard all about the acts of heroism and bravery." She slinked over to him in strappy high heels, her feet barely rising above the wooden floor.

"Have you?" Kakashi inquired politely. There was something off about this woman, and his body tensed automatically in warning.

"Oh, yes." She rounded the sofa, exposing the long slit on her dress that went up to her hips. "They say you have many talents, Hokage-sama, Ninja of the Sharingan. But a ninja is a man first, no?"

Kakashi gave her a very obvious look over, his eyes dragging slowly over the perfect symmetry of her legs, hips and chest. "One could say that."

She giggled and placed a foot on the coffee table before him. "Do you like being a man?" She had come straight from the festival, the smell of ramen stalls and barbeque still clung to her hair.

"I love it," he said as she leaned forward to place her hands on the table so she could crouch before him. Kakashi glimpsed the string of a red thong as her legs spread.

She placed her hands on his knees and leaned forward. "How would you like to try a few new positions with me?"

"It sounds interesting," Kakashi replied as he slipped a finger under a strap and pulled it to expose a pale shoulder. He locked his eyes on her face and smiled. Despite the heavy make-up, there was no mistaking the faint whisker marks on her cheeks.

"Take it off," Kakashi whispered as he slid a hand down the black material of the dress.

There was a poof of smoke, and then a burst of laughter.

"I knew it!" cried Naruto. "I knew that you were a giant pervert." He cackled louder, only to be interrupted by the hiccups of his intoxication. "I got you!"

"Naruto..."

"Yeah, you thought I was a chick, and you were going to sleep with me and everything," he exclaimed, ignoring Kakashi entirely. "Kiba thought that you were a eunuch."

"Naruto." Kakashi dropped his voice to its huskiest quality, "I said, take it off."

The laughter promptly died from Naruto's face as he looked at his old sensei in horror. "Eh...?"

"I knew it was you. Take it off…" Kakashi dragged a thumb across Naruto's cheek, smudging the make-up on his face. " Now ."

Naruto blanched and jerked back, flopping inelegantly over the couch and running for the exit.

Kakashi chuckled at his student's hasty retreat, knowing that he had managed to prank one of Konoha's most notorious troublemakers. That would teach Naruto for causing such mischief on one of Kakashi's most important days. He stood up and went to shut the curtains of the window. The fireworks had ended and the only thing left was the light of the moon. As he did, he saw the thick file with Sakura's name on it.

Soon, he thought.

~O~

Sakura groaned as she heard a sharp rap on her door, grabbing the pillow and holding it tight over her head. She climbed out of bed five minutes later when the knocking had not stopped. She gave her hair a few pats to tame the wildest strands, slipped on a robe and made her way to the door.

"What do you want, Naruto?" She asked in irritation. Of course he had to come knocking as she was beginning to fall asleep. "Wait…why are you wearing make-up?"

"Sakura!" He ignored her question as he grasped her shoulders. "I just made a discovery!"

"What?"

He leaned in to whisper loudly in her ear. "Kakashi- sensei's gay!"

Sakura blinked at Naruto and removed his hands from her shoulders. "Goodnight, Naruto." Then she shut the door in his face and crawled back into bed.

 

 

Chapter Text

Tsunade, much to Kakashi's disgruntlement, had left him a massive pile of paperwork to do. One of his objectives was to streamline the process, because he wasn't going to make ten-hour days hunched over a desk a habit. The only thing that made the morning bearable was the lunch waiting for him at Ms. Tokushima's house. It was with great relief when he heard a knock on the door.

The visitor was Kasumi, the kunoichi from Mist who had challenged Anko to a drinking contest. She bore no marks of the previous night's alcoholic binge fest and looked unusually cheerful.

"Hokage Kakashi Hatake," she said in a sly tone as she bared her sharp pointed teeth. "It's so good to see you again." She twisted her violet hair in her hands and pinned it atop her head. "Who would have thought a man like you would have taken a post like this? I would never have guessed."

Kakashi frowned. "What are you doing here, Kasumi? Beside's the free alcohol at the festival and a nose for trouble, that is."

She fluttered her eyes at him as she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a small box. "I needed to give you a gift from the Mizukage, one that I am required to watch you open so I can deliver a message."

Kakashi took the small box from Kasumi warily. He got along well enough with the Mizukage considering he had stolen most of her jutsus when they had been teenagers. She only tried to kill him once when he was in Kiri.

He took his time as he opened the package, making sure that he didn't tear any of the delicate paper that covered it. When he was finished, he found a glass statue of a turtle that was filled with water.

"The statue is a symbol of Water Country's alliance with Fire, and it is the Mizukage's fervent hope that peace will have the longevity of such a noble creature. She also believes that someone like you would overlook the décor of your office." Kasumi slid off the coat from her shoulders and let it fall to the ground.

He chuckled and placed the turtle on an empty shelf behind him. "I haven't gotten around to opening many of the gifts I have received." He rapped his knuckles on the new desk. "I only received this yesterday."

Kasumi pointed her finger at the only other object in the barren room. "And what is the story behind that rock?"

Kakashi sat back down in his chair. "Earth Country would like to symbolize the ongoing peace by giving me a boulder. 'May it prevail and be steadfast as this large and ugly rock . ' I just left it there for lack of a better place."

She snorted and walked around the desk, sitting on the edge and placing a foot on his armrest. "I miss you."

Kakashi ignored the long expanse of exposed leg and raised an eyebrow at her in disbelief. "Somehow I really doubt that."

Kasumi slipped a foot out of her boot and placed it on Kakashi's lap. "I miss the lovely pedicures you used to give me." She wiggled her toes.

He scooted his chair back to allow her foot to fall back on the floor. "I don't give pedicures. You probably have me confused with one of your other hundreds of ex-lovers."

Kasumi laughed. "Yeah, yeah. Can't fool you, can I Kashi? And you don't give yourself enough credit. There aren't many who can keep up with me and quite frankly, most of the men I dumped were simply up to your standards. It's a pity it didn't work out between us."

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "It didn't work out because you are ruthless and conniving. And no, I'm not going to give our relationship another try."

"Why not?" She pouted at him, a move that brought absolutely no pity from Kakashi since he knew it was faker than Sai's smile.

"You hooked up with another man."

"It was just that once!"

"Right," replied Kakashi in a dry tone. "It was just the one time, during our mission posing as a married couple. And then you tried to blame the failure of the assignment on me."

"Don't be so sensitive, Kashi. That was over ten years ago. You got back at me by messing up my genin team two years later. Do you know how annoying it was for the next six months? All three of them were crying in their sleep! It's a miracle we weren't attacked by an enemy ninja squad that could hear them." A genuine smile was threatening to break out her lips.

"I thought it was a valuable lesson in teamwork." He shuffled some of the paperwork on his desk into a pile. "It is time to move on. We don't get along that well and you even tried to eat me once." Kakashi subconsciously rubbed the scar above his lip.

"It was only a nibble," Kasumi said coyly, all pretense of indignation gone.

"Well, thank you for that clarification. If you'll excuse me, I have an exciting journey to look forward to. Be thankful you are still free to roam." He waved his hand at the piles of paperwork by his feet.

The smile fell from her face. "I saw him, that old student of yours. He was giving us some trouble in Mist two weeks ago."

"Sasuke?"

"Yeah, him. There is a school yard on the outskirts of the village. He attacked in the middle of the day and tried to slaughter everyone there. The only reason he didn't succeed was because of a summoning jutsu that brought jonin to that exact location. Twelve students, three teachers, and dozens of civilians were killed. Uchiha escaped because we were faced with the choice of rescuing some of our students from a collapsing building or chasing him down. We chose to let him go. By the time the trail was picked up again, Uchiha had disappeared.

"The Mizukage wants some immediate action against him. He's very lucky that his attempt to join Atkatsuki was so pathetic that he didn't actually do anything against Mist. When the Mizukage heard that you became Hokage she wanted me to impart how very important it is for you to take care of the situation."

Kakashi nodded. "Naruto is at the border of Fire Country waiting for him. However, Sasuke has yet to show his face."

"That is not good enough!" Kasumi's fist slammed against the table.

"I know." Kakashi stood up from his chair and lifted up her coat from the floor. "The only other option we have is to lure Sasuke here by his own choice, which is rather difficult since he has very few reasons to return. And searching for him is useless because he's genjutsu skills can get him out of most situations before most people are unaware of what is going on."

"But are you working on a solution? I don't want to tell the Mizukage that you're working on it and find out you haven't done anything. Hokage or not, I'll kick your ass." She leaned over and placed a finger on his chest.

"It happens to be my top priority." He brushed aside her hand and tapped at the desk with his foot. "This entire drawer is filled with information about Sasuke Uchiha. I have a plan that should work. If the mission doesn't succeed by winter's end, I'll send word to the other Kages."

"All right, I trust you on this Kashi." Kasumi removed the coat from his hands and made her way to the door. Kakashi followed her down the steps in silence and thought about the strange development.

~O~

"No." Sakura shook her head at Kiba. "You're wrong about that."

Kiba leaned back in his chair. "Naruto told me before he left for the border this morning. Kakashi's definitely gay."

Sakura rolled her eyes. Everyone else at the table was looking at Kiba with outright astonishment, even Shikamaru. Ino, in particular, looked particularly intrigued by this tidbit of news. Sakura knew the news would be running throughout the village by the end of the day if she didn't do something to stop it. It was supposed to be her private joke with Kakashi.

"Was Naruto sober when he told you that? Because when he stopped at my apartment last night to share the news, he could barely stand upright."

Kiba shrugged in guilt. "Uh... We were pretty drunk last night."

"Right," Sakura said. "And you do realize that if Kakashi finds out that your spreading a fake rumor he can make your life very difficult. He is in charge of handing out all the missions now." She saw Ino lean back in her seat as her best friend lost interest. Success.

"Okay, okay. I'll keep my mouth shut." Kiba removed a large chunk of pork off his plate and tossed it out the open window next to him where Akamaru was sitting. "I could be wrong. Maybe Kakashi isn't gay."

"I'm sorry, what were you just saying?"

Sakura looked up at the speaker, a jonin who was sitting at a table next to them. Shizune and Kurenai were eating lunch with him and had abandoned their food to listen in. She recognized the man, although for the moment she found herself struggling to remember his name.

"I've been his friend for years. I can tell you he's not gay." He removed the senbon from his mouth and pointed out the window. "In fact, that's his ex-girlfriend passing by right now."

Everyone at the table turned their head to look at the woman making her way down the street. Sakura's jaw dropped open when she recognized the violet-haired woman who won the drinking contest from last night. The competition had been a weird one and everyone had been talking about it in the morning. While Anko had pounded drinks down at the table, the woman had poured herself a glass and mingled about the crowd. And then poured herself another. Then she picked up an abandoned glass at a table and polished it off. Then she picked up a bottle and downed the whole thing while swaying to music playing. Anko had been expecting a straight-forward challenge, and the Mist woman wouldn't oblige. By the end of the night, Anko was at the hospital and the kunoichi from Mist looked as unruffled as ever. And she had drunk twice as much.

The jonin at the table sighed. "Her name is Kasumi and she and Kakashi have been an item off and on for about ten years. There's no way he would have stuck around with her if he was gay. She's one of the most infuriating women I've ever met."

"She looks pretty unhappy right now," observed Kurenai. "When I talked to her last night she spoke of giving the relationship another try. He must have turned her down."

"That's more proof Kakashi is gay," replied Chouji. Sakura had a sudden urge to strangle him.

Kiba gave a flirtatious whistle as the woman passed. She paused, looked inside, and began to make her way in the restaurant.

"What the hell did you do that for!" hissed the jonin. "Now she's going to come over here."

Kiba grinned. "I know. Maybe we can squeeze a bit of information out of her."

Sakura saw a vein throb in the jonin's face. "Unlikely, that woman's way out of your league."

"Genma Shiranui. It's so good to see you again."

"Hello, Kasumi. He's the one that whistled at you." Genma pointed to Kiba.

"Oh?" She turned to Kiba and gave him a very obvious look over. "Whistle at me again and I will remove your tongue and tie you up with it."

Kiba gave a smile, showing off the prominent canines in his mouth. "Kinky."

The woman gave a coy smile that displayed her own sharp teeth, and Sakura suddenly felt very sorry for Kiba. The premonition doubled when she heard Genma moan in distress.

"You like it rough?" She asked as her finger caressed the marks on Kiba's face. "I should have known. Your sister was the same way."

Kiba pulled back in horror, titling over his chair and flopping on the floor. The table burst out in laughter as he struggled to right himself.

"Shiranui, perhaps you can answer this question. Who's the girl?"

Genma frowned. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I was turned down and that never happens. If I find out you had something to do with Kashi's change in attitude, I'll get you back for it." She crossed her arms in annoyance.

"Maybe Kakashi doesn't like you anymore," said Sakura. There was something about Kasumi's little nickname for him that set her teeth on edge. Cutesy nicknames didn't suit him at all. "It is possible."

Kasumi arched her eyebrow. "Don't be stupid. If there is one thing that Kakashi enjoys in a relationship, it's a power struggle. He wants his lover to be an equal, not a dowdy little sycophant." She gave Sakura a very purposeful look up and down. "I'm sure you wouldn't understand."

Sakura felt her anger flare and opened her mouth to retort back. But out of the corner of her eye, she could see Kiba wiggle in excitement. She caught him mouthing the word "catfight" and snapped her mouth shut. There was no way in hell she was fighting over Kakashi.

The woman smiled in triumph when Sakura backed down and turned back to Genma. "He'll come back to me. In the meantime, try not to ruin him for me." Kasumi made her way out of the restaurant.

Shizune shook her head as she watched the kunoichi walk away. "Kakashi has been changing some of his old habits. I think she might be one of them. Rumor has it he hasn't been late to one thing yet."

Sakura rolled her eyes. She gave Kakashi a month before he returned to his lax ways. She heard the others give murmurs of agreement.

Genma chuckled. "Listen, you may think you know Kakashi. But you don't remember him when he was young. He was an unrelenting hard-ass even then. Later, he became one of the top ninja who often went on missions unassisted. Then he became a respected squad leader. He takes the old, mixes in something new, and becomes just a little bit different. Some people are afraid to change, and that's the difference between a standard ninja and the elite. I don't know what he's going to do now, but it looks like he has already started on something big."

~O~

For this, Obito would forgive him.

At least, it was Kakashi's fervent hope that he would. If there was one thing his well-meaning, if not slightly dense, teammate had enjoyed, it was watching Kakashi make a fool of himself. And when Kakashi had taken the Sharingan as his own he made several promises. He would protect the village as best as he could and watch out for his teammates. And every time he stood in front of the monument he reflected on the future of the village and how he could do better. Some in the village viewed it as a morbid habit, an obsession that was tinged with guilt and stunted his emotional growth. But the truth was that Kakashi gained clarity every time he visited the memorial. He had plenty of talent as a youth, but he hadn't understood what a ninja's role was until that fateful incident. And as regrettable as it was that Obito had to die in order to give him that knowledge, he was forever grateful to his friend.

As much as he had wanted to respectfully decline the post as Hokage, Kakashi had to accept. Yes, it was full of politics, budgets, and tedious paperwork that he despised. However, he could no more decline the post than stop the sun from rising. Tsunade's request immediately set his mind spinning with long-term goals.

His father had given him a small scroll that detailed his family history the day he became a genin. Kakashi had hidden the scroll for the past few decades in a small box between old blankets. He had pulled it out to reread it when he accepted the position of Hokage, despite the fact he knew every word on the scroll by heart.

He did not have massive wealth to support the village or a clan. Instead his family had chosen a different fashion to make their mark in the village. Kakashi, his father, and his grandfather had all served Konoha by being loyal in mind and heart, almost to a fault.

This pledge of devotion didn't seem like much. Kakashi had recited a similar mantra when he became a genin, but it wasn't the same. They were simply words that held no meaning, evidenced by the actions of traitors. Clans were notorious for having deserters since they had a great deal of village secrets locked away in their minds. The hearts of the rich could sway once an opportunity for money came along. Politicians conspired, businessmen swindled, and the list of the disloyal continued.

Kakashi's great-aunt had married the daimyo of Fire Country. His grandfather had died in the second war after saving the Third Hokage. His father had become the famous White Fang and was among the village's most revered ninja. The dishonor that came eventually drove him mad and suicidal since he was so desperate to redeem himself. Kakashi always assumed he would die in battle as well, but his new title provided him with a new option.

The Hokage shaped the future of the village by giving guidance to the children in the Academy and inspiring the ninja in his ranks. The village was still hurting from the amount of backroom politics that had been present since its very foundation. Kakashi's goal was to heal those wounds.

It was for these noble reasons that he was standing half-naked in Ms. Tokushima's living room, waiting for her to emerge from the back room.

"Excellent, you've already taken off your clothes," Ms Tokushima said in a far too cheerful voice. She placed the basket of sewing supplies on a table and pulled out a measuring tape. She wrapped it around his waist and jotted down the measurement on a piece of paper.

Kakashi closed his eyes lazily, hearing the measuring tape snap as it pulled taut. He took a deep breath to inhale the rich smell of food that was bubbling on the stove.

"Do you have any preference in design?" She poked at his ribs.

"Not that I can think of." Kakashi thought it was best to leave the fashion choices to someone who knew what they were doing.

The elderly lady hummed in thought. "Perhaps a little color for accents?"

"Perhaps," he said with hesitance. He opened his eyes to see Ms. Tokushima pull out a swatch of bright yellow cloth and hold it to his face. Kakashi had a vision of himself dressed head to toe in a lemon yellow suit. To his relief, she put it down and reached for another color, this one a deep red. She clucked and set it down once more.

"I prefer darker colors," he said helpfully. "Light ones make me look anemic."

Ms. Tokushima stepped down from the stool she had been standing on. "We can't have the outfit too dark. It will make you look dangerous and imposing."

"I am dangerous and imposing," Kakashi replied as he courteously moved the stool in a new place for her.

Ms. Tokushima patted him on the forearm. "I'm sure you are. Well, I suppose there are always the classics to fall back on. Now let's get down to the details. How many pockets would you like?"

Kakashi hummed in thought. "Six should be sufficient." He glanced at his clothes that were folded on the chair, seeing the familiar lump of his Icha Icha book.

Ms. Tokushima reached for the measuring tape again. "Would you like a coat for the colder months?"

"That would be nice," he said, thinking of the Fourth Hokage's famous garment. Kakashi had never admitted how awesome he thought it was, preferring to let Obito and Rin voice his admiration. The tape slipped between his legs to measure the width of his thigh.

"What are your intentions for Sakura?"

"Intentions?" He looked at Ms. Tokushima, trying to ignore how the tape had mysteriously slid higher and was now digging into unfortunate areas of his crotch. He wondered if she was related to Ibiki.

"I saw the way you looked at her last night," she said.

Kakashi cleared his throat and the tape became tighter. It was clear that he wouldn't get out of this one. "I am attempting to bombard Sakura with my good looks, charm, and personality so she grows hopelessly attracted to me and calls off her engagement with the daimyo's son."

The measuring tape was removed as Ms. Tokushima put back the supplies in her basket. "I see. And how is that working out?"

"It's somewhat successful, but she's scared." He shrugged. "I can only to do so much about it. If I cross a line she'll never speak to me again."

Ms. Tokushima crossed her arms. "Do you love her?"

Kakashi's jaw tightened as he looked at the short old woman in front of him. The last time someone had asked such a question, he had been drinking. Even though his muddled head had struggled to come up with a response, it was one he found satisfactory. But now he was completely sober, half-naked, and there were no excuses. And as much had he wanted to give the same response, to say he simply cared for her, the words wouldn't come out of his mouth. He had chosen Sakura because she was a logical choice. But now there was a file with her name on it in his desk drawer. Its mere existence made it impossible to lie to himself and it was the reason he hadn't even contemplated Kasumi's advances.

Kakashi Hatake, like the rest of his family, was loyal in mind and heart.

~O~

Sakur received her first summon to the Hokage Tower a week later. She made certain to show up on time; the village had been talking about Kakashi's strict observance of the schedule the entire week. Rumor had it that Kakashi forced a D-ranked mission for every minute late.

The door was already open when Sakura arrived in the later afternoon. She poked her head in and was surprised to see a mess of random items strewn about the room.

Kakashi's voice could be heard from behind a mountain of boxes. "Close the door behind you and take a seat. I'm nearly done."

Sakura made her way around a large boulder and over to one of the chairs in front of his desk. She could hear the crinkle of wrapping paper.

"What are you doing?" She lifted up one of the ornamental fans that were placed on his desk.

"Opening presents. I managed to get most of the paperwork from the week finished."

She saw his hand reach up from behind the stack of boxes and place a photograph on the shelf against the wall.

Sakura's jaw dropped in astonishment when he emerged from his hiding spot. Kakashi had traded in his familiar clothes for something new and Sakura was finding it very difficult to concentrate.

It was a well-known fact that ANBU uniforms were Konoha's choice aphrodisiac. The combination of tight black clothing and armor was synonymous with power and intensity. And someone, some fool of a person, decided it was a good idea if Kakashi wore an outfit that was inspired by the uniforms.

The grey armor had morphed into a sleek vest that was more for decoration than defense. It was a lighter tone than the actual guards but it matched his hair color to give it a striking look. His mask was sewn onto the black shirt and had gained sheer sleeves. Kakashi had eliminated the forehead protector and replaced it with a thin strip of black cloth.

Sakura had seen a similar style when she was in Snow Country a few weeks ago. Businessmen liked to take ninja style as their own, modeling the look in their own shallow attempts to display power. But unlike those people, Kakashi had the skill to back it up. Sakura could see the outline of the Anbu tattoo that showed his many years in the organization.

"Nice clothes," she said weakly when Kakashi turned his attention to her.

He beamed at her. "Thank you. Ms. Tokushima tailored it for me. I was a bit worried at first, but I'm quite pleased with the results.

Sakura nodded as she clenched her fists around the armrests. Didn't her neighbor remember how she and Ino used to scope out the Anbu ninja that were crossing rooftops from her balcony? This new look was going to make it very difficult for some people to concentrate on his words.

She glanced at Kakashi's forearms again before forcing her eyes to stare at the pile of cardboard boxes in the corner.

"I have a task for you." He opened up a drawer in his desk and placed a thick file in front of her. "Take a look at the information."

The file had her name scrawled on it in Tsunade's handwriting. Hesitantly, she opened it up to find notes on optic nerves. Sakura flipped forward and noticed the information had shifted to chakra pathways. She frowned in puzzlement. Most of this information had been taught to her by Tsuande years ago. She flipped ahead and her hand froze mid-turn when she saw a photograph of a Sharingan eye. She darted a look at Kakashi hoping to get some indication of what it was about, but he was busy working on some paperwork before him. Sakura continued to skim the file, and was unsettled to see that the rest of the file was about the Sharingan. Its images sent shivers down her arms.

The last ten pages consisted of the health history of someone named Obito. Sakura took her time to read this information. When she was finished she looked up. Sakura wanted to believe that the file was a joke, that she had misconstrued the meaning of the papers in her lap. Kakashi, however, looked at her with that serious expression of his, and her stomach plummeted.

Look underneath the underneath, her mind whispered.

Sakura experienced double vision, as if she were the one that saw the world through two different sets of eyes. Kakashi looked like the rich people she had met in Snow, but she could also see the fighter in him. It said something about him that even his choice in wardrobe modeled one of the lessons he had stressed. She could see the familiar traces of her teacher and also the man who had proposed to her. Kakashi was evolving and on the precipice of something new.

"Does this mean…" Her words faltered. A part of her desperately wanted to keep her mouth shut so things would stay the same. But there was no other reason he would have given her this file if his mind wasn't already set. Sakura held on to the file with a tight grip and tried again.

"Does this mean you want to turn off the Sharingan?"

Chapter Text

The Hokage's office still felt bare. The bookshelves that had been filled during Tsunade's time were empty. Unhindered by curtains, the large window to the side provided a clear view to the village below. The desk held only paper on its surface and was absent of personal effects. The gifts sent to the Hokage were placed on the floor with little thought and the stack of brown boxes led to the feeling of a temporary habitation. The only thing real in the room was the Hokage and his response.

"Yes."

Kakashi's response was unvarnished and far too calm for such a monumental decision. The empty atmosphere grew as Sakura's feeling of nausea intensified. She leaned back in her chair and pressed her hands to her face. She had been there for a few minutes and already felt exhausted by the brief conversation.

"I can't take out the Sharingan," she moaned in frustration. Her chest was growing tight and she struggled to keep her emotions in check.

She heard him lean back in his chair before he spoke. "I don't want you to take it out. There are several other medics capable of performing the task. You are the only other person besides Tsunade capable of shutting it off and turning it back into a normal eye."

"Kakashi, this is insanity." Sakura stood up and began to walk around the room in agitation and avoided eye contact with him. There was nowhere to hide in this room.

"I believe you have the skill to do it and so does Tsunade."

"That is not what I meant!" Sakura slammed the file against the boulder that was mysteriously present in the room. She looked out the window so Kakashi wouldn't see the tears that were threatening to take a hold of her. "You've had the Sharingan for ages! I can't turn it off! That would be wrong." She saw Kurenai and Shikamaru cross the rooftops on their way to the school building.

She wished she was out there instead of in this office.

"Sit down," Kakashi said in a firm voice. Sakura took another deep breath to regain her composure. She hesitated before lowering herself back onto her chair. There were several reasons that she did not want to do this at all, some of which couldn't admit to herself.

"I get a headache every time I use the Sharingan. But I also wake up with a headache every morning. It goes away after I channel a little bit of chakra into the eye, so it is not a pressing issue. It is a minor inconvenience for the benefits that I receive, and I've never complained about it. However, I hand out the missions now and there is no reason for me to continue having them."

"The Hokage is supposed to be the most powerful ninja in the village," Sakura protested as she finally looked up at him. "You can't do that without the Sharingan."

The look Kakashi gave her was cold. "If it was purely about strength, Naruto would be Hokage right now. I became a jonin at age thirteen and that was before I received the Sharingan and before you were born. Don't insult me by suggesting my talent is only based on this cursed bloodline ability."

Sakura flinched at his harsh tone. Despite their mutual teasing and odd relationship, there was a level of disrespect she shouldn't cross since he was Hokage.

"My reputation was based on the Sharingan, but it is time to move on. All of the nations that signed the treaty are determined to keep it, and external threats have decreased. What has increased is my ability to succeed, my understanding of the village's needs, and my headaches. I need the Sharingan out."

"Have Tsunade take it out if it's so important to you," she replied in a feeble voice. "I don't want to have anything to do with this." Sakura shuddered with the recollection of the Sharingan as it whirled.

"I can't ask her since she left the village for a vacation. That's why she gave all the information to you. I'm surprised you haven't noticed."

Sakura was surprised. The Ehime estate was now sending her daily letters concerning her wedding plans. Sakura frequently sought out advice from Ino before she sent out the response letter and it made her days busy. Now that Kakashi mentioned it, Tsunade's disappearance was so obvious.

"Do you even know how dangerous this is?" Sakura wrung her hands in her lap. "The Sharingan is extremely dangerous to mess with. It's not like the Byakugan where the bloodline ability is pre-existing and only requires a gentle push of energy to activate. The Sharingan is more like a parasite. I'll have to use my chakra to persuade the Uchiha chakra back in the eye and separate the connection with your system. The force of the three different types of chakra at such a specific point could cause the eye to explode in your skull."

There was a pause. "That sounds painful."

"You would be dead," she said bluntly, hoping to scare him into abandoning the idea.

"Ah. At least it wouldn't hurt."

She sighed at his flippant acceptance. "Kakashi, please reconsider this." She was dangerously close to begging, but at that moment she didn't care. Screw pride, this just might be one of the worst missions of her life. She leaned forward and went to grasp one of his hands in between her own. She noticed the palm of his hand was startlingly smooth in comparison to his rough fingertips. He didn't wear gloves anymore. " Please ."

His face softened under her gaze. "I'm sorry, but my mind is made up." His other hand reached over so he could hold each of her hands in one of his own. "This request is more than just about the Sharingan."

"I don't understand what you mean," she said as her eyes began to burn once more. A tear spilled down her cheek as she closed her eyes.

Kakashi's fingertips threaded in between hers. "You don't have to worry about it. All I need you to do is help me out with this." He gave her hand a squeeze and withdrew his hands from hers. "Enter," he called out.

Sakura wiped the tear from her cheek as she opened the door. She hadn't even heard the person knock.

"Hokage-sama," the chunin bowed in respect. "I have the reports that you request--" The man stopped as he looked at Sakura's odd position. "Why are you sitting like that?"

Sakura was leaning forward in her chair and her left arm was still reaching for Kakashi's hand. Her mouth opened to respond but her mind blanked. She couldn't admit that she had been holding hands with Kakashi, a situation that she was now recognizing as slightly inappropriate. She pulled her arm back into her lap.

"She's begging for a raise," replied Kakashi when Sakura failed to respond.

She gave the chunin a watery smile as he gave her a puzzled look. Why couldn't she think of lies as smoothly as Kakashi?

"You'll have to forgive her silence. She's mute so it makes it very difficult for her to communicate," he continued.

Sakura felt her sadness diminish as her level of annoyance increased.

The chunin nodded sympathetically as he turned to Kakashi. "Why is she crying?"

"She's allergic to me."

The chunin's eyes grew wide in surprise. "That's really weird."

"Which is why she is begging for a raise," Kakashi said impatiently. "The reports?"

The chunin apologized and handed the papers over. He left the office in haste, sensing his unwanted presence.

Sakura wriggled in her chair as the door clicked shut. "He's not very bright."

Kakashi shook his head. "I have to put him on missions with people that can easily sense deception. Otherwise, he might get himself killed in an obvious trap."

"You should make him a teacher," Sakura suggested. "He'll catch on to liars pretty quick that way."

Kakashi nodded as he mulled the idea over. "A sink or swim approach. I like it. I'm certain there is a teacher who would like to go on active missions again. There always is." He jotted down a note on a blank piece of paper.

She looked at the heavy file on the desk in resignation. "I'm not going to change your mind, am I?"

"You don't have to sound so miserable about it. This is a good thing." He held up his hands in defense when she gave him a dirty look.

"I know Sasuke used Tsukuyomi on you," Kakashi said in a gentle voice. "Is that why you don't want to do this?"

Sakura's body stiffened in response and she wished he could take those words back. Tired of the emotional rollercoaster he put her through, she picked up the large file and tucked it under her arm. She was done with this conversation.

"The request is more than just about the Sharingan," she said unhappily, using Kakashi's own words against him. "I'll study the file and get back to you next week."

She left the office in haste to let him ponder the mysterious statement alone.

~O~

Kakashi frowned as he heard a knock on the door. He specifically asked the officers below for minimal interruptions today. Sakura was supposed to arrive in the afternoon to speak to him about his Sharingan. The upcoming appointment had made him into a bundle of nerves. He hadn't spoken to her since he discovered the situation was even more delicate than he assumed.

He expected her to be exasperated and worried about his extreme request. Kakashi had not been prepared for the tears or Sakura's uncharacteristic begging. It was as someone had sucked out her spirit and left a defeated girl in her stead.

He had also heard from Tsunade, Naruto, and Ino that Sakura had largely recovered from her encounter with Sasuke. But seeing how quickly her mood had dropped made Kakashi realize then how vulnerable Sakura still was. He couldn't risk saying the wrong thing and scaring her off with his words. And she couldn't risk doing the wrong thing or he would be dead.

Unsurprisingly, Kakashi had been in a foul mood the entire day.

People had been willing to honor Kakashi's request for silence. It must have been someone extremely persuasive or important to gain access. Kakashi moved the envelope from the Ehime estate to the side when she saw the door begin to open, prepared for an onslaught of crotchety elders with a long list of complaints. Instead, he was met with a vision of pink and green and a brilliant smile.

Maito Gai walked in the room with a large bouquet of flowers.

Kakashi hadn't had a real conversation with the man since the announcement had been made several weeks ago. Gai left the village as soon as the announcement was made because he had been personally requested by a client for a mission, which meant the man had plenty of time to come up with a speech. Gai had only made three steps into Kakashi's office when his eyes began to water.

Kakashi sighed.

"Hokage-sama, my most gracious leader and former rival in love, battle, and rank! I, Maito Gai, give my allegiance to you in mind and body. My actions in battle will be a testament of my loyalty to you!"

Kakashi could feel a headache forming. "First of all, I know your name because I know you. Second, you don't have to call me Hokage, but I'm sure you will ignore my suggestion. And third, I know you are loyal since you've come to my aid several times before."

"Ah, Konoha is blessed indeed for finding someone so..."

Kakashi settled himself in his chair and zoned out as his friend began one of his extravagant speeches. Fortunately, he was prepared for such encounters since Ms. Tokushima had sewn six pockets in his new outfit. One for shuriken, one for kunai, one for his summoning scroll and three pockets that were perfectly sized for volumes of Icha Icha . He reached into the left pocket that contained Violence and flipped it open. Gai had yet to make his way to the window for dramatic effect. That was always the start of his second wind.

Kakashi might have considered Gai a close friend, but he had realms of eccentricity that were still unexplainable. Experience had taught that it was best to let Gai say his entire speech as soon as possible so the conversation could proceed in a normal fashion.

Of course, the definition of normal was flexible.

Kakashi looked up when he saw Gai holding up the bouquet of flowers to the sky. Since it looked like the speech was wrapping up, Kakashi began to pay attention once more.

"... far beyond the lush mounds of the north! And then there is Konoha at the hip of Fire Country, which bears the insignia of Leaf with pride. Our village contains tight thighs of ninja strength..."

Kakashi's eye widened at Gai's very peculiar description. There was an odd theme to the speech.

"Gai," Kakashi interrupted. "Did you sleep with a woman recently?"

The man paused mid-sentence, every nuance of his face screaming with a guilty ' yes. '

Kakashi pressed a pair of fingers to his nose. "I really don't want to hear about it."

Gai cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama. Perhaps I was a bit too enthusiastic."

"I said I don't want to hear about it. " Unwelcome images were already beginning to enter Kakashi's brain and the illustrations in his lap were only aiding his imagination. He snapped his volume of Icha Icha Violence shut and placed it back into his pocket.

There was a long pause as both men extricated their minds from their very private thoughts.

"If you are not offended, Hokage-sama, I will be leaving." Gai's face was red from embarrassment.

"Go ahead," replied Kakashi in amusement. His friend probably spent half of his mission contemplating a suitable speech to demonstrate his respect and ended up with poetic innuendo.

When Gai opened the door to find Sakura with her hand held up to knock on the door. He mumbled something to her and left. Sakura shook her head as she entered the office, undoubtedly surprised by his timid reply. She stepped over the abandoned bouquet of flowers and made her way over to Kakashi

"I've studied the file." She sat in the chair across from his desk without hesitation and placed some of her own papers on his desk. "We won't be able to turn off the Sharingan immediately. The chakra in your eye will have to become acclimated to my own before I can coax it back into a dormant state. Otherwise the eye could react negatively and respond in a violent fashion. Possible reactions could be a more aggressive state of chakra usage; it could give you brain damage or reject all chakra and break down." Sakura listed the drawbacks in a professional voice, aloof and completely impartial. It was a far cry from the emotionally attached person Kakashi knew.

"I see. And how long will the acclimation period take?"

"It depends on the eye itself and your own body. I imagine it will take several months. I want to schedule your sessions three times a week in the late afternoon. I'll come here when I've finished with my last patient. We can start today if you would like."

Kakashi said nothing of her distant attitude. "How are we going to do this?"

"I'm just going to use some of my chakra around your eye to become familiar with the pathways that have grown over time." Sakura looked around his office to gauge the surroundings. "I'm going to need a comfortable angle to do this, but you don't have anywhere to lie down."

"If I'm going to lie down, I'm going to be in my own bed and not in an office." He had put a few more things in the room since Sakura's last visit. Kasumi had pointed out his tendency for making things rather plain so he made a little effort to make it more personable. The boulder from the Tsuchikage was still under the large window. He had mounted the tapestry from the Raikage that depicted a large mountain on the wall. The wall on the far side of the room was decorated with fans, the largest of which was a gift from Garaa. The small glass statue from the Mizukage was on a shelf behind him. Kakashi was considering filling that wall with glass statues so it didn't look so random. Fortunately, well-wishers had sent him plenty of those as gifts. But he hadn't put in any more furniture.

"Well, I can't work on the eye if we are both sitting down. You're too tall for me."

"You could sit on the desk," Kakashi suggested.

She frowned. "I don't know..."

He tapped his hand on the wooden counter. "It should give you the height you need."

He saw her hesitate and then make her way over to the surface and sat down. Kakashi pulled his chair forward so he was sitting between her thighs. It gave Sakura a good angle to work from and it gave him a great view of her chest. The fates were kind enough to give him such a lovely bonus prize for his brilliant idea. "See? Perfect."

"You can leave your headband on. I don't think this is going to take very long." Sakura placed her hands on either side of his head.

He could feel the familiar sensation of her chakra crawl down his neck and tingle around his nasal passages. It was a pleasant thrum that made Kakashi want to close his eyes and drift asleep. He wondered what were the odds Sakura would allow him to use her chest as a pillow.

The pleasant tingle suddenly altered into sharp pain and he swore. Sakura pulled away her hands as he reached up to remove the black cloth away from his eye. Kakashi hissed as he noticed the cloth was already wet with blood. His mask was absorbing the large drips of blood coming from his eye and the smell of copper tickled at his nose.

"I told you." Sakura's tone was vicious and unrepentant. "I told you this was a stupid plan." She had removed a cloth from her medic kit and one hand reached forward to press it against his bleeding eye. The other hand slid in his hair to hold his head steady. "I barely did anything before it reacted. This might take longer than I thought."

"I didn't think it would bleed," he explained, somewhat puzzled by the reaction. The taste of blood came to his lips as he spoke.

"You didn't read the file," she responded in exasperation. "I told you I was severing the chakra connection between you and the Sharingan. You should have known this would happen. It's like when I use my control to break the ground or the Hyuga use their Gentle Fist method. Things bleed when they get cut. Imagine if I tried to force all of the chakra back at once."

Kakashi winced as her hand tightened around the strands of his hair. "Thank you for doing this."

"You didn't give me a choice."

"True." Kakashi reached up and pulled down his mask and wiped at the wet spots on his cheek and mouth. "I'll tell you one reason why I'm doing this if you tell me one of your reasons why this upsets you so much. And don't tell me that it is dangerous. Tsunade wouldn't have given me the information if she thought that I would end up dead in a month."

Sakura's gaze was centered somewhere on his mouth before her eyes snapped up to look at his own. "I will do it if you go first."

Sakura placed her hands in her lap as Kakashi reached up to press the cloth against his eye. He noticed that her posture had stiffened once more and he gave her a comforting smile.

"Konoha has to move on from the past. The village was founded with background politics, uncharitable compromise, and resentment. A central part of it was the Uchiha clan and the Sharingan that gave them talent above others. By closing the Sharingan, I am closing the turbulent history that comes with it."

"But you won't," Sakura argued. "As long as Sasuke is around, the legacy of the Sharingan is still alive. You have no idea what it means to the people of this village knowing that there is one other person with the Sharingan besides Sasuke. And that includes me. He could show up right at this minute and try to burn everything with Amaterasu and you could zap it away with your Mangekyo Sharingan. Nothing could replace that sense of security, not even Naruto."

"I hope you didn't tell anyone about my request. I don't want people to panic as you suggested."

"I didn't," Sakura responded. "But I think they will notice when we finally have the Sharingan off."

"One would think," responded Kakashi. "But a few more things need to occur before I plan to let anyone know about it. So until that time, I'll continue wearing the eye patch." He raised the sodden strip of cloth and then tossed it in the trash bin. "Well, not this one."

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "So you want me to turn off the Sharingan so you'll have a working eye, so you can continue walking around half-blind?"

"Yes."

Sakura pressed her hand to her face. "I will never understand you."

"You know me better than you think." He gave her a pat on her knee. "Is that all for today?"

Sakura slid off the desk and brushed down her skirt. "Yes. You can take the pressure off your eye in five minutes. These sessions might take more time as we make more progress, but I don't want to make any definite plans yet. It's just one day at a time right now." She popped her back and picked up the papers she brought with her, making certain that the yellow folder was in her hands.

"I'll see you in three days." She paused when she saw the pink bouquet on the floor. "What are the flowers doing there?"

"Gai brought them for dramatic effect."

"Oh." Sakura felt a devilish smile across her face as she backed away from him. "You know, you should probably burn those before anyone else sees them."

She saw one of Kakashi's eye narrow in suspicion as she felt the door handle hit her back. "Why?"

"There might be a tiny, tiny , gay rumor going around about you." Her hand grasped the doorknob and gave it a twist.

"WHAT?" Kakashi stood out of his chair and sent it skidding to the back of the wall. "What do you mean about-"

Sakura slammed the door when she was in the hallway and his voice disappeared behind the soundproof walls. She walked back to her apartment with a smile, her mind replaying the look of horror on Kakashi's face. The taste of victory was a sweet one.

She waved to Ms. Tokushima as she passed her up the stairs. When she was inside her apartment she placed her papers on the kitchen table. She set the water on the stove to make some tea and went to water her plants. When the tea was ready she made her way back to the kitchen table and opened up the envelope from Norio.

The following is an estimated budget summary for the Ehime Estate for the next quarter.

Sakura frowned and removed more documents from the folder and all the papers contained lists of numbers. The sheets fell to the floor as her stomach gave a lurch.

Oh no.

She scooped them off of the floor and made her way out of the apartment, not even bothering to shut the door. Sakura couldn't believe that she had mixed up her personal letters again. After the first mix-up with Ino and Tenten she should have learned her lesson. She had double checked the folder before she had left the hospital so the only other solution was that she left the folder in Kakashi's office. And if Norio's letter was like the last one, she was in for a world of humiliation. The last thing she wanted was a bunch of village elders going over her personal letters.

Why did humiliation follow her so readily?

Sakura didn't bother to use the stairs to climb up the building and she rocketed up the side of the building with chakra. She stormed into the Hokage's office without knocking.

Kakashi was sitting in his chair and didn't even bother to raise his head to look at her. Instead, his eyes were glued to the page in front of him like it was Icha Icha . Sakura recognized the yellow envelope on his desk, identical to the one she held in her hands. Furious, Sakura reached for the nearest object, a metal fan tacked on the wall, and threw it at his head. Kakashi shifted his head to allow the fan to pass and impale itself on the wall behind him. His eyes didn't lift from the page.

"That's personal, Kakashi!" She slammed the envelope in her hands on his desk and picked up the one that was meant for her. "Let go!" She yanked the papers out of his hands. A quick glance revealed her worst fears and her entire body grew hot from humiliation.

"Ah, hello Sakura." He reached behind him to remove the fan. "Do you need this? You look a bit flushed." He snapped his wrist downward and a gust of air floated her hair back.

A series of insults danced on the tip of Sakura's tongue. Most of them were variations of where, precisely, Kakashi could stick that fan.

Kakashi had the gall to smile at her. "I don't know why you're so offended. It's nothing I haven't read before."

She raised a shaking fist at him in anger. This infuriating man was incomprehensible. One minute he was completely serious, then he would be kind, and then he would be the most annoying person she ever met. Unfortunately, Rule Number Something-or-Other of the Ninja Handbook was that you weren't allowed to strangle your Hokage.

"Go kiss another man, Kakashi," Sakura retorted as she stuffed the papers back in the envelope.

Kakashi groaned in annoyance when she slammed the door behind him. She had been adamant that she would not spread the terrible misunderstanding the first time around. Was she teasing him or was the rumor actually going around?

He needed to talk to Genma.

Chapter Text

Good fortune arrived in Konoha. People crossed the village gates with good moods and money to spend. Some were desperate for one last trip before the winter months and the boom in tourism caught everyone off guard. As surprises go, it wasn't the worst thing that could happen.

For some visitors visiting Konoha was a pilgrimage, a chance to see the famed location where the first ninja village was established. They gawked at the Hokage Monument and walked the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of sketched faces in their copy of Who's Who in the Ninja World. And they stared at the Hokage Tower, hoping to see the silhouette of the Hokage through the top window.

Konoha became a center for art as painters set up their easels and began to sketch. The coming of autumn meant the tree canopy would burst into a dazzling array of colors at any moment. The artists wanted to capture it for themselves and waited for the moment the tree's changed. Meanwhile, they bided their time by sketching anyone who wanted a portrait. When the sun set, the crowds gathered on the fields to listen to the musicians. Troops of actors took the center of the village, performing plays and spreading their names to the masses that visited.

Other tourists arrived to sate their own curiosity, eager to see if the rumors were true. They kept their eyes peeled for trees that had been turned into ninjas and the infamous pig army. And when these things were not spotted, the visitors would remark on how well these secret organizations were hidden from the public eye.

The streets filled with people as they wandered down the narrow streets and snatched up items to take as souvenirs. It had gotten so bad that any locals with a grasp of chakra had taken to the rooftops. Many of them watched the tourists pass their streets from their windows and grumbled under their breath. Then they looked at their wallets heavy with money and feel better. But they were looking forward to when Konoha would empty once more and life could return to normal.

Restaurants were filled with the noise of success. The cooks at the back of the restaurant busied themselves with requests, clanging their knives as meat sizzled on the fire. Servers scuttled across the restaurant with platters of food and plunked change into a growing pile of money. The customers were crammed into booths and added to the cacophony with their laughter. It was hard to get a seat at any restaurant and most locals had abandoned casual gatherings for lunchtime into the quiet of their own homes. But for some, there was still room at the restaurants.

The Sixth Hokage of Konoha never had trouble finding a table. On this day, he looked at the crowded restaurant impassively. He could not feel the joy that adorned so many of the diners' faces. The most he could muster was a touch of annoyance. Didn't they know that a grave injustice was at the verge of breaking?

He looked at his own table to see three amused faces. "It's not funny."

"No, it's freaking hilarious!" Anko responded as she clutched her stomach with laughter. Shizune gave Kakashi's hand a soft pat in sympathy.

Anko waggled her eyebrows. "Well, it had to come from someone. At least you know it wasn't one of us who started it. Genma wouldn't have started it because he's too much of a coward and Shizune thinks you are respectable for some reason. And I would have come up with something way better."

"I'm not gay and don't encourage it." Kakashi was grateful that the din of the crowded restaurant prevented his voice from carrying beyond their table.

Genma chuckled into his glass. "Yeah, we know that. And I told them that, but Inuzuka is a bit of a social pariah. I swear he's even worse than Inoichi's daughter."

Kakashi scowled as he continued to poke at his food. "Where in the world did they get such a ridiculous idea anyway?"

Genma shrugged. "I don't know."

"Sakura was the one who stopped it," said Shizune. "She's the only one who had a sense to think the accusation through. The rest of them were more than ready to believe it."

"Really?" Kakashi was honestly surprised by this news. It was an odd coincidence that Sakura was the one defending him even though she was the only one that actually had seen any evidence supporting it. He was pleased by the information. "Wait... did you mean Kiba Inuzuka was spreading the rumor?"

"Yeah." Genma quirked an eyebrow as Kakashi gave a sigh of understanding.

"I may have done something..." He shook his head in exasperation. "I was playing a joke on Naruto, but it appeared the idiot didn't have enough sense to sober up before he went to spread the rumor. Most people would have keeled over after drinking that much alcohol."

"That's too bad," replied Genma. "Anyway, there's nothing to worry about. As long as you don't do anything to convince people otherwise, it will die out." He reached for the glass bottle on the table. "Do you want any more sake, Kakashi? If not, I'll finish the rest of it off."

Kakashi looked at his empty cup. "No. I think I've had more than enough." He was determined not to make a fool of himself. Sobriety was good for that sort of thing.

~O~

Initially, Sakura had been hesitant to spend so much time with Kakashi. She didn't want to endure his teasing while fulfilling his request. But he had surprised her by remaining professional as she worked on his eye. He never mentioned her upcoming marriage, her apprehension towards the Sharingan, or Norio. Even the innuendo filled letter she had left by mistake was never brought up again. In fact, she was beginning to enjoy her time with him.

Word had leaked out to the village about Sakura's spring wedding and strangers in the village were constantly nosing into her business as she walked down the street. They were always asking details of the ceremony and critiquing her choices. One time, two retired kunoichi in their seventies argued if green or grey was more complementary to her pink hair. It was a moot argument since Sakura had always gravitated towards the color red. She slinked away as soon as the two women had forgotten about her and heard that the women had come to blows.

It wasn't much better in the hospital because most of the people who she worked with wanted to be involved in some part of the ceremony. Some wanted invitations for the lavish ceremony and some people just wanted details. And when Sakura was home she was forced to respond to her daily letter from the Ehime estate. Hiding in Kakashi's office for a couple hours was the only peace she got nowadays from the wedding.

The process of shutting down the Sharingan was a tedious one and every advance was miniscule even by her standards. The foreign chakra was resilient and was trying to reestablish the connection after she severed the ties. And the chakra had begun to recognize her as a threat and she had to be very careful not to agitate it too much.

Sakura slid into her customary spot on Kakashi's desk. "I hope you drank enough water this time. It's unsightly that the Hokage passes out from a little blood loss." Sakura rested her feet against the seat of his chair as he leaned forward and placed his hands on the desk.

"I forgot to eat that one day because I was busy." Kakashi grumbled. "You wouldn't believe that amount of reorganization I have had to do recently. Missions are coming from every corner of Konoha plus the standard ones in other villages. Some of the homes in the village were not given enough support when they were built a few years ago. We told the owners when they moved in, but some people put it off. Now that everyone is traveling by rooftop, everyone wants them fixed. The influx of money means that they can afford it. Poor Tenzou has been working twelve hour days."

"You are so full of excuses. Do you know how many sprained ankles we've had to fix at the hospital because idiots are falling through the rooftops? It is such a moronic injury, but we get them healed up and out the door. You should know better than to skip lunch and be dehydrated. Especially since you knew that I was going to be here and you ended up bleeding all over the place." She pressed one hand over Kakashi's eye and another on his temple and send out a miniscule bit of chakra to his system.

"I can feel the eye spinning," he said. "And I'm not trying to activate it. It didn't do this before."

"It recognizes my chakra as a threat," responded Sakura. "Then energy is like a river that is attempting to flood a dam. If it pushes me back with enough force then you would get hurt. That's why we are taking our time with this."

The energy in his eye reacted violently and pressed against her chakra. Sakura ignored the burning in her hand and the instinct to retreat and carefully severed another connection of the eye to his system. Kakashi grunted in pain and Sakura felt her left hand grow warm with blood. She slowly pulled back her chakra, careful that she did not go too fast. If she made any sudden moves, the unexpected force of the agitated chakra could damage the eye or brain area.

Free from his system, Sakura clenched her hands. The tiny operation had given her chakra burns across from her palms and down her wrists, something she hadn't experienced since she was a rookie.

"We're making good progress," she remarked as she wiped some of the blood off of his face. "In another week the connection to your system will be severed. Then all we need to do is push back the foreign chakra into a dormant state and connect you chakra system properly to the deactivated eye."

"That's great," Kakashi gasped as he buried his head into her shoulder. "Can you repeat that again when I'm paying attention?"

Sakura stiffened from the physical contact before forcing herself to relax. His right hand had wrapped around her waist at some point in time. She should have pushed him away and made him retreat from her personal space. But from the way he was shuddering, Kakashi was preoccupied with gaining control of his own motor functions. And his hands hadn't wandered anywhere troublesome yet, so she let him be.

"I have a headache," he said in a muffled voice. "Is there anything you can do about that?"

Sakura brushed her hand against the top of his head to smooth out his hair. "I'm afraid not. If I were to heal anything, it would send back our progress. I think you should go home and get some rest. The light will only make your headache worse."

Kakashi lifted his head from her shoulder and leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed. As he did so, his hand around her waist slid back, grazing along her thigh and knee. She clamped down the urge to question his actions. The last thing she wanted Kakashi to know was how aware she was of his touch.

"How are things at the hospital?"

"Good. I've been working with Shizune on the next batch of medicines. We have identified a few strains of bacteria that could give us some trouble. In a couple of weeks we are going to have to pull most of the staff to work on the new vaccines for winter. You should send out a message to the villages in the next week to tell us what is in demand. We don't know how much to make until they get back to us."

"I'll work on that tomorrow. I'm scheduled to visit the Academy and the less time I spend there, the better off I am."

Sakura frowned. "Don't be a wuss. I worked in the pediatric wing for a year and children aren't that bad."

"I like children. It's that there are so many of them. All of those tiny faces look up with innocent expressions while secretly plotting how they are going to use chakra to get rid of the hot water in your apartment. The less I am around them, the better off."

"You were wonderful when we were in Snow Country. I don't see how it's any different."

Kakashi laughed. "Of course it was different. I've known those kids since they were tiny. I find them less annoying."

Sakura shook her head. "If you say so. Just finish up what you need to do and go home to get some rest. You don't want to strain yourself too much." She slid off of the desk and reached over to throw away the blood-soaked cloth in her hand. "And remember to send out that letter to the villages."

Kakashi opened an eye to watch her walk out the door. Tucked underneath her arm was another letter from the Ehime Estate. He had been completely surprised to open the innocuous letter to discover a letter which was nothing more than shameless dirty talk. He heard from the mail office that she was getting letters from the Estate daily to go over her wedding plans, and it was doubtful all of them were from Norio. He clamped down the urge to remove the letter from her arms to open it himself. But still the question remained. Was that letter filled with the same salacious language?

The headache was intensifying as the sun lowered to shine directly into his window. Deciding to call it a day, Kakashi left his office and walked down the hallway that led him to his office. As soon as he was inside, he closed the curtains, sat down on his couch and closed his eyes. It was too early for him to go to bed yet. Perturbed, he went to the kitchen to heat up some leftover rice.

The Sharingan was agitated and it kept watering as he ate. A headache was intensifying and he wished it would go away. But the annoyance was worth it. He needed Sakura to see how comfortable she could be with him, and the only way he could do it was if she spent time with him. Anything less than business would have caught her suspicion and she would have refused any invitation. Having her take out the Sharingan was the perfect excuse. Most people would have called him stupid for giving up one of the most sought after kekkei genkai for a girl. And if he were an observer, he would agree whole-heartedly with this assessment.

But he loved how much Sakura was changing. Sakura stayed longer than necessary with him because she wanted an escape for the rest of her life. She was now receptive to his words and reciprocated every affectionate touch he gave her. Likewise, she wasn't afraid to argue with him, fearless of his title as she cut straight to the heart of the matter. And because of this, he considered his tactic to win her over a partial success.

He was interrupted from his thoughts by a knock on the door.

"Excuse me for the interruption, Hokage-sama," said the guard. "I believe it's another one of your special ladies and she-"

"Just let us in!" Genma's voice cried out from down the hall

Kakashi gave the guard in front of him the nod and the guard left. Genma was standing at the end of the hall.

"You have no idea how long I've wanted to say this." He popped the senbon out of his mouth and gave a cheeky grin. "Sorry, I'm late," he said with great relish. He stepped aside to reveal ayoung, petite woman with soft curves and cerulean hair.

"Kakashi Hatake, I want you to meet Aoi. She is a visitor from the next village and she has a bit of a thing for ninjas."

Kakashi had been joking when Genma had made the suggestion two months ago for a 'lady-friend.' Now he was uncertain how to react. "I don't think this is wise. I'd rather not deal with unnecessary complications."

The young woman gave a small smile as she made her way inside Kakashi's home. "I don't like complications either Hokage-sama. That is why I am very discreet." Her voice became lower as she slid off the jacket on her shoulders and faced him. "I am also very willing." Her hand reached forward to press against his chest.

Kakashi's protests diminished as her hand slid lower.

"I thought she was to your tastes, Kakashi. I know you have a thing for women with distinctive hair colors. Have fun, you two." Genma gave a wink and closed the door to leave the two of them alone.

Kakashi found himself on the sofa and she leaned forward to straddle his lap. "I don't normally need to have other people looking for women for me," Kakashi said, feeling the urge to explain.

Aoi nodded. "I understand. You're terribly important and don't have time to waste on silly things like this. I can't believe that no one has even thought about addressing this problem of yours."

He groaned in frustration as she slid off of his lap. But then she gave him a coy smile and she spun around. Kakashi relished the sound of her zipper as it opened and felt his heart rate increase as her skirt fell to the floor. He reached for her, and admired her toned thighs as he moved his hands up. The edge of her shirt lifted and he caught sight of something odd.

His hand froze when he noticed the tattoo engraved on her hip.

"Aoi," he said in a strangled voice. "You said you're from the next village over?"

"Oh yes, Hokage-sama. If you have any more urges for companionship, I'll be more than happy to take care of them." She had begun to nibble at his ear.

The next village a short distance away. It would take a civilian a day to reach the village on foot. It would take an average ninja a few hours. But for an elite shinobi it would be about an hour, which wasn't very long at all.

"That's a nice tattoo," he said as he stared at the leaf symbol that was drawn on her skin. Now that his mind had caught up with his libido, he was beginning to realize what a horrible mistake he was on the verge of committing. A peculiar conversation that occurred a few weeks back rang in his head.

" And then there is Konoha at the hip of Fire Country, which bears the insignia of Leaf with pride. Our village contains tight thighs of ninja strength."

"I wear my tattoo with pride," Aoi said as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Kakashi felt like a bucket of cold water had been poured on him as Gai's smiling face popped in his head.

"Well, I'm happy that you are so proud of your country. No, there's no need." He stopped her as she began to remove her shirt. "I'm not interested."

"What?" She stared at him in disbelief. "You were so eager a few minutes ago."

"I have regained my senses." He reached for the floor and handed Aoi her skirt. "I'm sure you are very lovely and enthusiastic," Kakashi winced at his unfortunate word choice.

"Okay," she shrugged and put on her pants. "You know where to find me if you change your mind."

"I do." Kakashi shut the door and heard the click of her heels as she walked away. While Gai had called Kakashi his "eternal rival," this would probably be taking the situation a bit too far. Relieved he had avoided a crisis, he went to bed blissfully alone.

He awoke a few hours later to a loud thumping noise at his door. Kakashi groaned as he untangled himself from his sheets and made his way to the front. Wasn't the whole point of having a pair of ANBU guards was to prevent this sort of thing? He flung open the door, determined to give the person who was rudely interrupting him a firm dress down for interrupting his sleep.

"What the hell, Kakashi?" Genma was standing at the doorway with a disgruntled expression. "I tried to help you out and this is how you repay me? How could you be so thankless?" He slipped past Kakashi and made his way inside.

"Please, come inside," Kakashi said dryly as he shut the door. He really didn't want any more visitors tonight. The headache had eased but he hated it when his sleep was interrupted. During missions he could stab the person who had bothered him, but Genma probably wouldn't like that.

"Why did you send Aoi away? She was perfect!"

Genma was speaking rather loudly, and Kakashi moved to the kitchen to get a bit of distance. The urge to commit violence would grow stronger. But Genma was hot on his trail, determined to extricate a response. "She wasn't to my tastes."

"That's a lie," said Genma stubbornly as he snatched the glass out of Kakashi's hand and downed the cup of water.

Kakashi's eye narrowed in annoyance and noticed the pointed thermometer lying just beyond his reach. "Why are you being so rude to me?" He moved back to the living room where pillows would be the most likely weapon.

"Rude? What about you? I go through all of this trouble to find someone for you and you shoot her down. Do you know how many women would like to sleep with you?" Genma held out his hands with a wide distance between them. "Now do you know how many of them would have stayed quiet about it?" He dropped his hands.

"Aoi was the one girl I know who would have kept her mouth shut. Every woman I ran across would have blabbed her mouth or possibly claim she was carrying your child. But I know you like discretion so I was picky. And then you reject her!"

Kakashi shrugged. "It was better off that way, trust me."

Genma shook his head. "Yeah, so you think. But you hurt her feelings. She ended up going to the bar and explaining how she turned her down. She's only discreet for her partners and you weren't one of them."

Kakashi winced. "How bad was it?"

Genma poured himself another glass of water. "Kiba was there and nowadays all of the bars and restaurants are packed. There's not stopping the gay rumor now. As far as everyone is concerned, you have just come out of the closet."

Kakashi sighed as he made his way over to the couch. It wasn't a war, it wasn't a bijuu, and it wasn't a horrific massacre. The rumor wasn't a crisis by any means. He should be thankful that this was his biggest problem. But that didn't help the depression that was overcoming him

"Maybe you could say you're bisexual," his friend suggested helpfully.

Five seconds later, Genma was out on the street.

~O~

Norio looked out of his study window and saw the top of the trees were beginning to change. Winter would be here soon enough and he would be forced to stay at the estate for another few months. He wasn't certain how Tomio could stand being in one place for so long, and he was grateful that it was his responsibility to meet with clients. It would be nice to have once last trip before winter settled in.

He heard it was supposed to be nice at Konoha this time of year.

Chapter Text

Chie Tokushima had avoided most of the tourist traffic so far by doing her errands early in the morning as the sun was beginning to peek out. Today, she had no choice but to make her way through the throngs of people as she went to the Hokage Tower. There were many people gathered, some standing with their faces tilted up to catch a glimpse of the Hokage through his window. Others stood in a line to gain admittance inside the building. Grumbling to herself, Ms. Tokushima approached the back of the line. But the line thinned quickly as the ANBU guards were quick to shoo away all of those with unnecessary requests.

A woman in front of her held up a camera. "I just wanted to get a small picture with him," she explained to the guard. "It would only take a minute." .

The ANBU was unrelenting. "The sixth Hokage is very busy. Take a picture of Hokage Mountain instead."

She turned to look at the gigantic rock wall. "We have mountains surrounding our village. It is not terribly impressive. My village would have had the face carved in it already. I want a picture of the man," she whined.

"Go down to the field with the artists. I am sure there is someone who will do a henge for you." The guard turned to Ms. Tokushima. "I need to see your identification and please state your reason for admission."

"I am the Hokage's tailor and I am here to deliver his winter coat for him." She handed over her papers and a large bag in her arms.

The guard took a peek in the bag before setting it down. "Is he expecting you?"

"No."

He waved his hand to catch someone's attention. "I need the list." Another guard walked over and they sifted through the pages. "Ah yes, I see you already have permission to enter. Walk over to the group over there and they will lead you inside in a few minutes."

Ms. Tokushima stood behind a man covered in dust as she waited for the guards to thin out the rest of the line. Most of the people were turned away and some were sent to another building. During all of this, she could hear the steady click of cameras as the tourists snapped pictures.

Finally, Ms. Tokushima was led inside with a group of people and they sat in the chairs in the waiting area in the hallway. She leaned comfortably in the chairs and closed her eyes as she waited for her turn. One by one the people were called into his office leaving Ms. Tokushima alone in the hallway. A woman carrying a tea set entered the room and dropped it off. She did not close the door properly when she left and Ms. Tokushima could hear snippets of the conversation from her spot in the hallway. She opened her eyes when the conversation grew louder.

"Please Hokage-sama, one little peek is all we need." It was the voice of the man who stood in front of her in line.

"I said no."

"But we can't put up your masked face on the Hokage Mountain. It's a tradition that the Hokage has his face exposed. It's a symbol of the connection between the village and its leader."

She heard a button unsnap. "You see this kunai? It's a symbol of the connection between your body and a dumpster."

Ms. Tokushima chortled. She knew that there was something charming about Kakashi when she first saw him standing uneasily in front of Sakura's door. His casual stance showed that he was a self-assured man, but his evasive answers betrayed his intentions. So she invited him in, curious of the mysterious man that was older than the boys that Sakura frequently turned away. He was a taciturn man whose words were filled with dry wit and it struck an immediate liking in her. She was always very good at judging people and she could tell that Kakashi was a man whose heart was in the right place.

Her laugh echoed down the empty hallway and she knew they had to have heard her. Light streamed in from the door as it opened and the dusty man was looking at her in annoyance.

"This is a private conversation," he said loftily.

Ms. Tokushima looked up at him, hardly believing that he had the audacity to talk to her that way. She gave him a stern look that had frightened her three sons when they were younger. "You should know better than to give the Hokage advice on matters of tradition."

The man look suitably cowed and he shuffled off to the side as another man appeared.

"Ms. Tokushima, I thought I heard your voice. Please step inside." Kakashi turned to the dusty stone worker. "Don't bother me with this request again."

Ms. Tokushima rose from the chair and stepped around the man. "Make certain you wash behind your ears when you get home," she said kindly. "There's quite a bit of dust collected back there."

She shut the door and made her way over to one of the cushy seats in front of the desk. "You shouldn't make an old woman like me wait so long in order to see you."

Kakashi walked over to a table where a tea set was waiting. "My apologies. It's normally not such a bother, but the crowds were becoming too much without a screening process set up in place. Would you like some tea? They just brought it in."

"Yes, that would be lovely." Ms. Tokushima placed the bag onto the large desk and patted it. "I've made a few changes to my initial idea for your coat. Why don't you take a peek?"

He set the tea in front of her and pulled part of it out. "This has sleeves," he said in puzzlement. "I thought you were going to make a standard cloak."

"I decided that it would be a more suitable look instead. The cut of the outfit goes better with what you are currently wearing. This style is all of the rage in the north. It will make you look quite handsome." She placed the cup of tea down. "Now, tell me. How is your pursuit of my Sakura?"

Kakashi looked at her with a blank face and Ms. Tokushima sighed inwardly. It was so difficult to get most shinobi to show any emotional response. It was a miracle some of them managed to find a partner to tolerate them.

"I think this was a mistake," he said after a pause.

Ms. Tokushima raised an eyebrow in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"

Kakashi avoided eye contact with her as he looked at the ornate tapestry that was on the wall. "I can't force her to do anything and I think I may be pushing for something that doesn't exist."

"You told me you loved her." And Ms. Tokushima knew that it was true, because she saw the way his eye had widened in surprise when she first asked him. He might have been a self-assured man, but he was ultimately like many men. He found it difficult to understand his own emotions without guidance.

He sat down in the chair next to her and picked up a cup. "I nearly accepted another woman in my bed the other day." Kakashi's voice was low as if he swished the water in his glass.

"Ah, yes. I heard about her." She waved her hand dismissively as Kakashi began to pale. "Various rumors are going all over town, although most people believe the girl was lying. Is that why you turned her down, because of Sakura?"

He pressed a hand to his face. "If only. I turned the woman down because I realized that she had been with someone else I knew. I lost track of my head and I didn't even think of Sakura. If I'm not faithful to her now, how can I reasonably claim any right over her?" He took a drink from his cup and stared at it glumly.

Ms. Tokushima heard the strain in his voice and was relieved that he wasn't completely emotionless. Kakashi needed someone to tell him to accept his feelings. His own logic was prohibiting him from truly committing.

Men.

"Don't be a fool. You stayed faithful to Sakura even though you have no obligation to her. You are thinking with your head and this is a matter of the heart."

Kakashi stood up and made his way over to the other side of the desk. He went through one of his desk drawers and found a small slip of paper. He pushed it across the table. "Read it."

Ms. Tokushima opened the small yellow paper to find a short note in neat writing.

Kakashi,

Please make living arrangements for me this following week. Please do not tell Sakura, I would like for it to be a surprise.

N. Ehime

Kakashi tapped his fingers against the desktop as he stared at the note on the table. "Her future husband will be here in a couple of days. Things are falling into place and they are not to my advantage."

Ms. Tokushima shook her head in exasperation. "Did you listen to me? You must take this one step at a time. First, we have Sakura call off the wedding and then you can win her heart. Continue to be her support and then she will come to you. I don't know why you are so worried. You seemed fairly confident the last time I saw you."

Kakashi tossed the yellow note into the garbage bin. "You haven't met Norio. I thought I had a chance with the time between now and the wedding to persuade her. But now that Norio is coming here, things won't be the same. I'm running out of excuses to see Sakura now that the project we are working on is almost finished. She will take the time she spent with me to spend time with Norio." She could hear the disgust in his voice.

"The small advances I have made will mean nothing once she remembers how he makes her feel. He's charming and he has a way with words that make people like him instantly. He offers her an escape from her current life and I think that she might take it."

They sat in silence, both of them deep in their own thoughts.

"If he is so charming, why don't you think she will be happy?" Ms. Tokushima could see the faint lines on his forehead as he contemplated her question.

"There is a thin scar behind Sakura's ear. It is hard to see most of the time. She hides it behind her hair and she flinches if anyone touches it. There is a story there, and there is pain, and that is the reason she is running away into a marriage she doesn't need. I want to know the story behind that mark. Norio probably hasn't seen it, or he hasn't bothered to ask about it. Perhaps he thinks that thin scar has always been behind her ear. He doesn't understand that the scar should have been healed and the only reason it remains is because Sakura felt like she deserved it.

"Norio only knows her as the pretty girl that leans on his arm like an ornament, because that is how she is in his world. The brief glimpses of her personality that he has seen are not enough to gauge who she is. And I know it's only a matter of time before she becomes fed up with being an ornament and by then it will be too late." He raised his hand to rub at his hair.

"When will you see her next?"

Kakashi looked out the window. "The sun is beginning to set, so she should be arriving at any moment now."

"I see." She stood up from the chair and patted his head affectionately. "I'll talk to her and see if I can get to the bottom of this. Remember, her betrothed may offer her an escape, but you offer her a home."

There was a sharp rap at the door and Ms. Tokushima turned around to see Sakura walk in the office

"Ms. Tokushima, what are you doing here?" Sakura gave her a hasty bow and placed her large stack of folders on a nearby table."

"I was only here to drop off a coat." She turned around to face Kakashi. "Why don't you try it on? I want to see how it looks before I leave."

Kakashi gave her a calculating look, but reached for the coat anyway. She heard Sakura's breath hitch as he placed his arms through the sleeves. Ms. Tokushima smiled to herself, there were few things more irresistible than a perfectly cut coat on the right person.

"It feels good," he said as he pulled at the cuffs with his wrists.

"It's form-fitted for you." She patted his chest and nodded her head in approval. It came down below his knees and had a high collar so he wouldn't need a scarf in the wintertime. A devious thought came to her head, and she did her best to keep herself expressionless. "And I'll work on adjusting your trousers. I didn't realize you needed so much room in the pelvic area."

There was a long and awkward silence.

Ms. Tokushima gave Kakashi a smile and turned away to pick up her bag. As she left, she noticed Sakura's eyes were not even close to looking at his face and situated somewhere decidedly lower.

"Have a good day," she patted Sakura on the arm as she made her way out of the office. Sakura looked at her guiltily and gave a timid smile.

Ms. Tokushima chuckled as she shut the door behind her. She should have practiced matchmaking years ago.

~O~

"Are you feeling okay, Sakura?"

Sakura looked up from her desk to see the nurse with concerned eyes. "Er… yes? What makes you ask?"

"Well…" The nurse's face turned pink in embarrassment. "You were humming to yourself. It wasn't bothering me at all, but you never do that."

Sakura looked at her with surprise. "I was humming?" As if a song had been stuck in her head all morning and her foot was still poised for another tap onto the floor. But she hadn't been aware that she was humming out loud. "I'm sorry."

"Oh no, it was lovely. Never mind, I suppose I was making something out of nothing." The nurse went back to her station.

Sakura shook her head and tried to get back on task, but five minutes later she closed the file in her hand. It was no use; she was now having a hard time concentrating.

"I think I'm going to go home after lunch," she said as she looked at the clock.

The nurse stared at her. "Ah… okay. I'll be sure to tell that to the others in the hospital."

"Do you think they will mind?"

"No, not at all. They might be surprised, you rarely leave work early. Have a nice afternoon, Sakura." The nurse gave her a pleasant smile as Sakura packed up her things to leave.

She walked down the streets of Konoha, weaving her way through the thick crowd trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach.

Today was most likely the last day that she would work on Kakashi's eye. If all went well, Kakashi would no longer have Sharingan in a few hours. It was amazing she had made it all the way to lunch before she left the hospital. A part of her really wanted to talk about it with someone else, but the sensible part of her kept her mouth shut.

She ate her lunch at home and whittled down the rest of her afternoon by cleaning her house. The busywork kept her mind away from the nerves coursing through her body. Finally, she saw the sun was beginning to set and made her way over to the Hokage Tower. It was still a little bit early, but Sakura didn't want to wait anymore.

She knocked on the door and stepped inside to see that Kakashi was alone, staring outside the window at the village below.

They made their way over to the desk in silence, their usual habits becoming more like a ceremony.

Sakura placed her feet on the edges of his seat. "Are you ready?" she whispered.

"Not really," he admitted with a quiet chuckle.

Sakura pressed her hand against Kakashi's temple and followed the familiar pathways that lead to Kakashi's eye. The Uchiha chakra began to burble in agitation, but Sakura ignored it and focused on her work. The bond between the eye and his system were already severed, leaving only the barest of connections. She smoothed the ends of Kakashi's chakra system and began to push it forward to connect with the eye, pushing the foreign chakra back into dormancy at the same time.

She felt Kakashi's body turn tense. His hands had slipped down to where her feet were resting along either side of his thighs.

"That doesn't feel very good," Kakashi said as he gave her ankles a squeeze.

"Pressure is building up in your eye," she responded. "Now shut up and let me concentrate."

The chakra from the eye was flaring up and pressing back, but Sakura was able to keep her energy and Kakashi's steady. A tiny smile was beginning to appear on her face as she steadily pushed the Uchiha chakra back. She nudged Kakashi's chakra into place to compensate for the connection that was being lost. Slow and steady, she proceeded forward.

"I think it's working," she heard Kakashi mumble. She ignored him and kept going, afraid that a pause would regress her progress and cause the foreign chakra to fight back. She was somewhat aware of the sweat that was beginning to bead along her forehead and the passage of time as the sun began to set. But she continued her pace slowly, and finally, she could feel the pressure yield more and more.

She opened her eyes and looked at his face "Take off your eye patch," Sakura gasped. "I want to see this."

Kakashi removed to black strip of cloth and opened her eye to see. One of the tomoe had already vanished, regressing back a level. She gave the energy another nudge and saw the eye lose another. It was getting easier now. The eye was spinning and Sakura struggled to keep her concentration. The eye froze to a standstill and Sakura felt the chakra pushing against her own, her fingertips tingling with heat. Kakashi's grip around her ankles was tight and she knew the pressure in his head had to be unpleasant.

The red color began to fade away to reveal a dark brown eye. She felt Kakashi's face crinkle in delight as she closed her eyes. There were still a few things left to do. Kakashi's chakra system was disconnected from the eye and she had to reconnect it before it died from chakra loss. She connected his system to the dormant eye and sent her own chakra to massage the inflamed tissue. Finished, Sakura snapped open her eyes to look at her handiwork. The brown eye was still looking back at her

"Yes," she muttered as she looked at her handwork. Sakura lifted her hands and threw them up in the air. "YES!"

Giddy with success, she lunged forward to give him a hug. Unfortunately, Kakashi had the same idea, and as Sakura shifted her weight to the seat of the chair where her feet were resting, he was scooting the chair back in order to stand. They collided in an embarrassing display unworthy of the elite ninja that they were. Sakura was caught mid-crouch without anything to stand on and nearly tumbled onto the floor. She wrapped her arms around Kakashi's head since it was the only available object she could cling to. Kakashi was caught off guard as her entire weight shifted onto his upper body. His hands flew to her knees, hoping to stabilize his balance.

They clung to each other for one, terrible second, enough time for both of them to reflect that Sakura was stuffing Kakashi's face right into her cleavage.

Then the forces of gravity came into his play and Sakura's back smacked on the desk when Kakashi was no longer able to keep his balance. She grunted in surprise as she made contact with the uncomfortable wood and let go of his head when he tried to stand up. Mortified, her arms flung to lie on the desk on either side of her head. Her action scattered the neatly piled scrolls onto the floor in a loud clatter.

She winced and cast her eyes in the direction of the tapestry that hung on the wall, holding her breath for Kakashi's inevitable cheeky comment. But the moment passed as silence continued to reign, so she looked back to Kakashi. His eyes were not fixated on her breasts, nor was there a teasing smile on his lips. Instead, his eyes were focused on something just about her shoulder before they locked onto her eyes. Sakura noticed he had yet to let go of her knees, holding them up with a firm grip.

It would have been better if Kakashi had given her a proper grope, then she could have smacked him over the head, called him a pervert and the moment would have been over. She wanted him to let go or do something to break the quite stalemate that had spontaneously burgeoned. Kakashi seemed disinclined to do either and Sakura was stuck in her own traitorous thoughts and the intimate position that she was currently in.

His left hand began to move, his thumb grazing over her kneecap and making its way slowly up her thigh. Sakura felt her mouth go dry as her skin rippled with goosebumps. His eyes were locked onto hers and Sakura's breath hitched at the intensity of his gaze even as his fingertips danced along the edge of her shorts. He blinked and both of Kakashi's eyes crinkled into his trademark smile. The wandering hand reached up to her waist to snap her skirt down and the other pulled her up by the arm.

"I knew you could do it," he said in a cheerful voice as he gave her a polite hug.

Sakura bit her tongue to keep her attitude in check. She knew he was trying to get past the tension in the room by ignoring it, but she felt a little snubbed by his aloofness. Sakura slid off the table and glanced at the clock on the wall. She had been working on his eye for two hours and she felt cramped, uncomfortable, and starving.

"Do you want to have dinner? I'm really hungry."

Kakashi was tying the black strip of cloth around his face. Sakura had the urge to rip it off his face, annoyed that no one would see her hard work. "I would, but I'm afraid I can't do that."

"What? Why not?"

"Because there is someone coming to see you, and I'm fairly certain he will take offence if you have dinner with me instead of him. This took a little longer than I thought it would and he should be arriving at any moment now."

Sakura looked at him in confusion. "I don't know what you are talking about."

"I think Kakashi is speaking about me," said a male voice.

Sakura's mouth fell open when the door opened and she saw her betrothed standing in the doorway. "Norio! What are you doing here?"

Norio shut the door and reached forward to give her a hug. "I have come to see you before the winter set in as it will be a long time until spring. I could not sustain the idea that I would have to wait several more months before seeing you. I hope I was not interrupting anything important."

"Oh!" Sakura's face turned deep red in embarrassment. "No, not anything. Do you want to have dinner? I haven't eaten yet."

"That would be an excellent idea," he said as he smiled at her, the dimple she loved rising to his cheeks.

"Okay, I have to drop a few things off downstairs before we can leave. It will take me about half an hour."

"I will wait for you here," Norio said as he went over towards her.

Kakashi watched in horror as Norio leaned forward to kiss Sakura and he began to pick up the fallen scrolls on the floor.

He was not jealous. He was not jealous. He was not jealous.

Calm, Kakashi looked up once more and saw Norio's lips locked onto hers, his hand on her rear and his other hand lost in her hair. Okay, he was jealous.

He was not going to strangle Norio. He was not going to strangle Norio .

But he noticed something as he watched the couple that gave him hope. Sakura was uncomfortable, her arms stiff at her sides. She did not lean into Norio like she leaned into him. Kakashi placed the scrolls on his desk with a smirk.

"I.. uh.. sorry. You surprised me," he heard her mutter. "Oh, I'm so nervous that you're here. I don't think you've met my family."

Norio cleared his throat. "There is nothing to worry about. I think it will be a fine visit for the both of us. You may not be used to my advances and your people may not know my ways, but a kunoichi is a woman first."

She nodded, giving him a coy smile. "I will see you in half an hour." She practically skipped out the room, neglecting to say goodbye to Kakashi. He felt his irritation rise.

Norio nodded and made himself comfortable in one of the seats across from Kakashi. "And how have things worked out with you, Cousin?"

"Not bad," replied Kakashi, thinking of the best way to get retribution. "The village has hit a note of prosperity. We should be able to pay off some of the loans we have with your family in another year."

"Ah. Father will be pleased to hear about that. Speaking of which, he wanted me to inquire on your relationship status." Norio crossed one of his legs. "I hadn't the heart to tell him what I saw last July. I suggest you address the issue with him as soon as possible. You owe him your honesty about your sexual leanings."

Kakashi scowled. "That was a misunderstanding."

Norio frowned. "Misunderstanding? A misunderstanding is something that was overheard out of context. It is a little bit different to brush off what I witnessed."

Kakashi tapped his figures on the desktop, hoping that none of the village rumors would hit Norio's ears. "You don't understand. I was drunk and stupid and Tomio... He already knew that there was no meaning behind the kiss."

"If you insist, Kakashi. I don't particularly care about the circumstances." He leaned forward with an annoyed expression. "Honestly, I am more disappointed that the two of you stole my spot.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Sakura is a bit cold towards me. It is understandable and I do not begrudge her any of her hesitancy. It appeared that she and I had finally reached a certain amount of understanding during the party that night and I was looking for some privacy. I led her to the secret corner and we found the two of you there." He frowned, "It killed the mood."

Kakashi smiled beneath his mask, pleased by this delayed information. "Well, that's too bad," he said blithely. "I happen to be well known for taking things that once belonged to someone else."

"Well, it is a bit impolite. I do not care who you are, stealing things is simply rude."

"That is a rich accusation coming from you."

Norio frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Kakashi cocked his head to give Norio a piercing look, "Absolutely nothing. Plagiarist ."

"What?"

"You heard me." Kakashi reached into his left-hand pocket to remove a bright red book. "Could you imagine what Sakura would say if she found out all of those personal letters you sent her were actually excerpts from Icha Icha Violence ?"

Norio became very still as he stared at the red book on the desk. "I have no idea what you are talking about."

Kakashi raised his eyebrow and opened the book to a spot where the spine had cracked open. "Do not fear the beating of your heart, nor the fire that flows through your veins. It is love and passion that brings together conflicting ties of humanity, and it is man and woman that bring this world to completion. You may be the enemy, your people may not know my ways, but a ninja is a man first."

Norio was scowling at him. "I can't believe you carry that filth on you."

"Don't try to change the subject, Plagiarist." Kakashi smirked as he saw Norio's reddened neck, a sign of frustration.

"I will wait for Sakura downstairs," Norio responded as he stood up from his chair.

Kakashi chuckled as he put the book back in his pocket. Perhaps Norio's visit was a blessing in disguise after all.

Chapter Text

Sakura could feel the pair of bright blue eyes that were focused on her with such intensity, it was a miracle they weren't boring into her skull. She did her best to ignore the stare but it wasn't long before she cracked under pressure.

"Aagh! What is it, Ino?"

"You think you are such a smooth criminal, don't you?"

"Eh?"

"I came home last night from my mission to find out that someone had been in my apartment and messed with my stuff. And on the bathroom sink, I found strands of pink hair." Ino narrowed her eyes. "You broke into my apartment and took my new shoes. I haven't even had a chance to wear them yet, I was saving them for a special occasion," she said with a pout, "or at least for this Saturday."

Sakura sighed as she set down the wedding plans. She went to Ino's apartment the other day because it was closer to the Hokage Tower and she didn't want to keep Norio waiting in Kakashi's office. The chakra she had expended when she worked on Kakashi's eye had left her with a huge appetite. It made more sense to use Ino's apartment since she was already in possession of the spare key.

"I have your shoes at home," Sakura said. "I promise I will give them back to you."

Ino waved her hand dismissively. "Don't bother to return them. I am sure that you stretched them beyond repair with your enormous feet."

"Ino!" Sakura's pencil snapped in her hand, offended by her friend's words.

"I'm surprised that you even noticed my shoes. You normally have such horrible taste in clothing." Ino wrinkled her nose in distaste. "They were sexy and you don't have a sense of style. If I had to give it a name; I would call it 'Mom-wear.' I was certain you would start wearing granny dresses by next year."

"I wear what is practical," replied Sakura in an unrepentant tone. It was hard not to be offended, even though she knew Ino was being vicious because she mourned the loss of her shoes. "I spend most of my time in a lab and when I go home, I want to prop up my feet and not wear silly heels."

"Your style has gotten a little better lately. I've noticed you have taken more care in your appearance ever since Kakashi came back." Ino tapped a finger to her chin in thought. "Now that I think of it, the two of you have been spending an awful lot of time with him."

"I… that's not true." Sakura wiggled in her chair. Her change in appearance was a mere coincidence to Kakashi's arrival. It was not a subconscious effort to draw his attention. Nor was it a conscious effort, she corrected in her mind. It was a coincidence.

But Sakura's words were lost on Ino, and she continued to ramble. "And then you were hanging around him when he became Hokage. You know, he looks amazing in black. When I was getting a mission last week I noticed that you can see the outline of his muscles when he reaches up for that top shelf. That was a view you couldn't see when he wore the jonin uniform. And… ooooh!" Ino gave a furtive giggle in her hand. "I see what's going on."

Oh no. Sakura began to panic as her friend gave her a coy look. "Ino, it's not what you think."

"Oh, that's exactly what I think!" She gave a smug smile. "That's why you were so defensive of Kakashi. I thought it was a little suspicious. You two knew each other well enough, but I didn't think you were close enough to know so much about his personal life. You were trying to keep him and his fabulous style to yourself!" Ino waggled a finger.

"The Hokage is such a brave man to take on a fashion disaster like you. But I suppose if anyone is able to do it, it would be a gay man."

At any other time, she would have leaped to Kakashi's defense, but that meant Ino would sniff around for another explanation. Her best friend had always been rather good at wrenching the truth out of her, and Sakura couldn't risk it.

"I would appreciate it if you kept this to yourself, Ino."

"I'm your best friend, aren't I?" Ino flung arm around Sakura's shoulders and gave her a small hug. "I understand that you want to keep the truth of your horrible fashion sense a secret from your betrothed."

"Thank you."

"Anything for you, Sakura. Now, let's get down to the details. How is he?"

Sakura looked at Ino in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean," replied her friend as she leaned over closer. "Have you slept with Norio yet?"

Sakura scowled. "We barely know each other and he's nobility. It would be improper."

"I'm concerned about your well-being. Part of that concern means I have to make certain that the man you are going to marry is good enough for you," replied Ino in a professional voice. "You should be spending time with Norio instead of me."

Sakura lifted up the heavy envelope that sat on the table. "I have a wedding to plan."

"Go spend some time with him," Ino said as she snatched the envelope out of Sakura's hand. "You need to make certain that this wedding is even necessary before you finish the plans."

"Fine." Sakura stood up and grabbed her bag that was sitting in the empty chair of the restaurant. "I'm going to marry him, you know."

Ino gave a tight smile. "You still have six months to change your mind."

Sakura rolled her eyes as she left the restaurant. There was no way this wedding was going to be called off. She wouldn't allow it.

~O~

Yamato could hear the whispers as he approached the table, and became wary when they were silenced as he reached hearing distance.

"What is going on?" he said as he flicked through the messages that were in his mailbox. Shizune shared a secretive glance with Kurenai, while Anko stared at him without shame.

"Are you Hatake's lover?" she asked. Yamato saw Shizune plunge her head in her hands in shame as his own jaw dropped open.

"N-no!"

Anko examined him with narrowed eyes as she leaned over to Kurenai. "He stuttered. I think that is a sign of guilt."

"I am not his lover!" Yamato said with more vehemence. "What is more, I don't see why this rumor has become so important to everyone in the village."

"We've never seen him get laid, that's why," replied Anko. "For all of the porn he carries, I've never seen him make a pass at anyone, woman or man."

"He dated Kasumi," replied Kurenai. "I think that counts for something."

Anko rolled her eyes. "Puh-leez. It would have been impossible to drink all of the alcohol she downed at the celebration. Some of the stuff she drank would have taken out the Kyuubi, much less all of it combined. I've searched for her in all of the Bingo Books and I haven't found a single mention of her. I think she was some sort of genjutsu or something. I don't think she even exists."

Her smile became predatory as she looked at Yamato. "You, on the other hand, I know you're real. And you are always so keen to… follow him."

Yamato scowled. "I've seen Kasumi several times in Mist. She's real enough. I shouldn't be surprised that you are spreading this ridiculous idea. I, for one, believe the Hokage's sexuality is none of your business. It does not affect his standing as our leader; nor does it matter of he is gay or straight. But he is not my lover, nor is he gay."

The three women stared at him.

"Put me down as a 'yes,' Anko," said Shizune. "He was a little too defensive for me to believe him."

Yamato huffed in impatience as Anko pulled out a clipboard. Feeling unwanted, he left the room in search of some peace and quiet. He found a shady spot under a nearby tree and began to go through his mail once more. At the bottom of the stack was a report from along the border. He opened the envelope and gave it a cursory glance. Sighing to himself, Yamato tucked the report back inside the envelope and made his way to the Hokage Tower. But after a few steps, he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched. He turned around, but there was nothing suspicious around him. But when he looked a bit higher, he saw the three women peering out at him from the window above. Kurenai and Shizune vanished deeper in the room when they saw he noticed them. Anko, on the other hand, proceeded to open the window.

"Have fun at the Hokage Tower, Yamato," she called out as she waved her hands in a suggestive manner.

Yamato felt his face turn red as he turned around and walked away. It was unfair that she was treating him in such a manner, especially since he had some private information concerning Anko that he had been keeping from the public. He made a little note himself to take an embarrassing photograph of her the next time they were on a mission together.

Yamato shuffled the reports in his hands as he made his way up the stairs to the Hokage's office. Naruto nor any of the other teams that had been situated along the border had yet to see any sign of Sasuke. It was unsurprising news, but unfortunate. He found that the Hokage grew impatient with the lack of progress and would not be pleased. He knocked on the door to the Hokage's office and twisted the handle. As the door opened, he could hear a shrill giggle.

"Oh, Norio! You are sooo funny! Don't you think he is funny, Kakashi?"

"Hilarious," replied the Hokage in a bored tone.

Yamato stared at the scene before him in amazement. Norio Ehime was sitting in a chair and Sakura was sitting on the armrest, her hands going over his hair in affection. Kakashi was sitting at his desk across the room, a hand propped up to hold his chin. Instinct was telling Yamato he had come across a very unpleasant situation and he should leave before it was too late. He began to shut the door.

"Come in, Tenzou," said Kakashi.

Damn. Kakashi had broken the habit of calling him Tenzou years ago. The only time the name was ever spoken was when Kakashi's mind was occupied with other matters. Yamato poked his head through the crack in the door and gave a polite smile. "I can return at a later time."

"No, I insist that you stay," replied the Hokage in a cheerful voice.

The feeling of dread in Yamato grew. Kakashi's good mood translated into off-beat comments and dry humor, nothing that could be considered charming. Pleasantry meant Kakashi was trying to cover-up his true feelings of anger. The situation was worse than he thought. He entered the room with his body tense, ready to flee the room at the soonest opportunity.

"Norio, this is one of the village's top ninja, Yamato."

"I thought you said his name was Tenzou? Or is that your pet name for him?" Norio inquired in a sly tone.

Yamato closed his eyes, determined to remain impassive. He wondered what horrible deed he had done to merit this day. His misery intensified when Sakura gave a shrill giggle.

Kakashi ignored the insinuation as he turned back to Yamato. "What do you have in your hands?"

"I received the reports back from the border," replied Yamato, as he tossed aside his own indignation. "I suspected you would want to hear about it as soon as possible."

Sakura stood up from the armrest. "From the border? Does that mean Naruto wrote something? What does it say?"

"I'm afraid I need some privacy for this matter." Kakashi stood up and made his way around the desk to usher Norio and Sakura out. "You and your boy-toy will have to leave the room."

Sakura turned to Yamato, her eyes pleading. "Can't you tell me what it says?"

Glancing over her shoulder, he saw Kakashi and Norio locked in a staring battle. "Ah… I'm afraid that's classified information, Sakura."

Norio blinked first, then shook his hand and walked to Sakura's side. "It does not matter. Let the Hokage and his subordinate take care of matters. There is much to this village you have yet to show me."

Sakura was pouting as he led her away to the hallway. No sooner had the door clicked shut that Kakashi began to verbalize his anger.

"Did you see that? Can you believe his nerve? Norio walks into my village, sits in my chair and treats her like that." He shook his head as he began to pace the room.

"Pardon me, Hokage-sama, but I do not see what is so distressing."

"He treats Sakura like a pet. Like she is some sort of exotic animal that needs to be handled with care and guided. And the worst part is that she lets him ."

Yamato kept his mouth shut as Kakashi muttered out loud. He was at a loss on why the matter was so important. Kakashi stopped pacing and rubbed a hand over his hair.

"I apologize. Those two have been in my office for over two hours and during that whole time, she was making that terrible noise. I thought she stopped laughing that way when she was twelve." He sighed. "Has there been any progress at the border?"

"I'm afraid not, Hokage-sama."

"I thought as much." Kakashi rubbed his neck. "It doesn't matter. I have Kasumi looking at the border towns in Mist. If Sasuke is hiding there, she'll be able to find him."

Yamato hesitated before he asked his question. "Why is it so important to find him now? Has he done something more?"

Kakashi nodded. "I think he's become mentally unstable. The villages were content to leave him alone, but he's taken to attacking innocent people with little provocation. We have six months to find him and eliminate the problem."

"And what happens if we fail?"

Kakashi cleared his throat. "The other four great nations are considering cutting off trade with us. That would be devastating for our entire country, not just the village." He looked at Yamato. "We have very little time. Let's try to end the situation soon."

He looked out the window to see the bustling crowds below. Kakashi could not see the small pink dot of Sakura's hair, but he knew she was down there somewhere, walking with her hand in Norio's. There was no doubt that she was following his lead as she had done this entire week. Part of him wanted to throttle the girl with frustration, uncertain why his Sakura had vanished into such a submissive role. It had been like that the whole week, and Kakashi was on the verge of losing his mind. She hadn't been so annoying during their trip to Snow Country; her screeching laughter and blatant pandering were limited. Something had occurred to make her so desperate in the recent weeks.

"I think I'm going to call it a day," he said to Yamato. "Can you give me the reports? I'd like to look over them myself."

Yamato handed over the envelope. "I should warn you that Naruto writes about grass for three pages."

Kakashi took out several more reports from his desk and added Yamato's file at the top. "He always does."

He and Yamato walked out of the office, splitting ways in the hall. He nodded at the ANBU standing guard as he entered his home and flicked on the lights. It was still early in the day, but he didn't want to see any more people. Two hours straight of her laugh had given him a pounding headache. If Sakura knew her false mirth was comparable to the pain that his Sharingan gave him, she would have been mortified. But that meant he would have to get her alone when she wasn't being a simpering idiot, and that wasn't happening right now.

He set the reports down on the coffee table and went to his refrigerator. He wasn't hungry; the couple who had visited his office had killed his appetite. Instead, he pulled out a bottle of juice and took it with him to the couch. He had brought reports from the border. The Mizukage and Kazekage had been kind enough to forward some observations of their own. Kakashi studied all three in tandem, hoping to discover some link to the bizarre attacks so that he could-

Sakura had been caressing Norio's hair.

The unbidden thought came to his mind and distracted Kakashi. His hand tightened around the bottle of juice and he could feel it begin to crack in his grip. Shaking his head, he dismissed the thought. There was little he could do about the matter that he hadn't already done. It would be easy for Sakura to end the marriage, but she was being stubborn. He would simply have to wait it out like he always did.

Kakashi awoke to a familiar knock on his door, his mouth dry and a sore neck from his awkward sleeping position. He had not intended to fall asleep in the living room.

The hesitant knock came once more and Kakashi made his way to the door with little enthusiasm. He had yet to have a visit during the middle of the night that held any importance. His gut told him he should ignore it, but he trundled over to the door anyway. Kakashi opened it and looked at the familiar porcelain mask.

"Forgive the intrusion, Hokage-sama, but there is a visitor here to see you." There was little enthusiasm in the voice, and Kakashi suspected that the guard derived as much pleasure from knocking as he did answering the door.

"Send her away. I didn't ask for her to be here and everything else can wait."

The ANBU guard's voice became distressed. "Hokage-sama…it's not a female."

Kakashi felt the lingering headache intensify. "Fine. Let's get this over with." The guard disappeared into the hallway and Kakashi swore under his breath.

When the guard came back he was followed by a tall figure. Kakashi couldn't recognize the man in the shadowy darkness and he was beyond caring.

"Hokage-sama, sorry to intrude at this time of night but there were a couple of things I wanted to talk to you about. I've heard rumors-"

"Be quiet, Ebisu," Kakashi ground out when he recognized the visitor. There was no reason for the jonin to be here. He didn't know if Ebisu was straight, gay, or bisexual, but he knew there was no way he would have been knocking at Kakashi's door in the middle of the night of his own volition. Ebisu was a person whose sexuality could be described, generously, as repressed. It meant there was someone putting him up to knocking on his door in the middle of the night.

Kakashi was not in a mood to humor this speculation anymore. His awkward sleeping position had given him a headache and his mouth was dry. He had spent the earlier part of the day watching his cousin canoodle with his Sakura. Tenzou's report had rattled him and he was sick of his lack of control. All he wanted to do was crawl into his bed, hibernate, and wake up to find Sakura had called off the wedding. Since that was unlikely, he would have to take out his frustration in another place.

"Did someone put you up to this?"

Ebisu coughed into his hand and pushed up his glasses. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

Kakashi made his way down the hallway to the exit. He heard the ANBU give an unhappy moan and Ebisu's sharp intake of breath. Kakashi twisted the doorknob and flung open the door to see a small crowd waiting. He heard some of them swear in surprise.

Kakashi gave them a stern look as he began to speak. "All of you should be ashamed of yourselves. I thought you knew me better enough to be obsessed by this ridiculous rumor and I thought you all would have more lives than to be here in the middle of the night." Kakashi saw some of them bow their heads' in embarrassment.

"And you," he pointed to Kiba, "If I hear of one more rumor started from your mouth, I will make you in charge of washing the ANBU uniforms for a year." Kiba squirmed as he gave a guilty nod.

"Excellent. Go home and get some sleep." He saw the crowd disperse, some of them slipping money into each other's hands as they went on home. Kakashi made his way back to the building door, where the ANBU guard held the door open. He ignored the invitation, and grabbed a firm hold of the guard's vest.

"I never want to be interrupted in my sleep for such a ridiculous reason again," he hissed. "The next time you knock at my door, it had better be important. Someone better be dying, or an invasion, or something else of that nature. If not, I'm going to rip out every strand of your hair, and I'm not talking just about the ones on top of your head."

"You don't mean…"

"Yes," said Kakashi in the most vicious voice possible. "That includes your eyebrows."

Rock Lee let out a moan of dismay as Kakashi let him go and slammed the door shut.

~O~

Norio had only visited Konoha one time before, at a time when the village was hit by a massive invasion that incapacitated the fifth Hokage. He would never forget the gigantic mass of rubble that was piled under the Hokage Mountain. He was astonished to see the vast change that occurred in the four years since. Any trace of devastation had disappeared among the throngs of the crowd and the festive atmosphere. He had arrived at the village alone, riding on a horse and packed lightly. He was not arriving to conduct business or to show off his wealth.

No he was here for Sakura, to gaze up on her face once more before the winter months settled and he would be shut in the Estate until the spring arrived. It would be then that he could make Sakura his wife. He was pleased to see the crowds in the village. He had not liked the idea of her stuck in a ravaged village.

Norio assumed that she was delighted by his surprise visit to her. Despite her stiff demeanor when he had kissed her that first day, she had been warm and kind the rest of the week. She even invited him to her work, so that he could see firsthand how she had gained her reputation as a kunoichi.

He gave a polite nod to all of the nurses that peeked around the corners of the hospital.

Sakura looped her arm around his and she led him down the hallways that smelled strongly of antiseptic. Norio kept his head firmly in his pocket, refusing to submit to the urge to rub his nose. He walked down the stairs where she led him to her office, listening vaguely as she explained her work, where she was responsible for the creation of antidotes, serums and antibiotics. He paused at the door, catching sight of his reflection in the glass pane.

"I look horrible," he muttered, holding a hand to his face.

Sakura giggled as she tugged his arm. "It's the lights, they make everyone look dead. Imagine what the cadavers look like."

"I wish you would not make jokes like that. It is not very funny." Norio frowned as he looked around the lab, where glass tubes sat on shelves and petri dishes were stacked with careful labels. He did not like the thought of Sakura standing over a dead body, her hand inside a chest cavity.

Sakura's smile faded lightly. "Oh. Okay."

She spoke to him as she showed him the lab, her dulcet tones washing over his ears like poetry. Strange beguiling words that held no meaning came from her lips but he could see her love and passion and it took everything he had not to kiss her right there.

Sakura flushed. "Are you listening to me?"

"What lips are those that can utter such wonderment?"

Her mouth curved again into a smile and the urge became stronger. He needed a distraction. "Is it time to eat?"

She nodded and they made their way out of the deep caves and into the village. They settled into a booth, savoring the foods from each other's plate. Norio enjoyed the laughter that left her mouth, delicate and high, a sound that overwhelmed the sound of the dull crowd.

"I should get going; there is work to be done."

"Stay." He tried to persuade her, his hand caressing her wrist. "There are others who can cover for you."

"I need to go. I missed part of the day earlier this week so I can't afford anymore."

He stayed at the table for a few minutes longer, watching her walk away from the restaurant window. He did not notice the man who slid into his booth until a moment later.

"Who are you?" The stranger was a Konoha ninja, young and tall with fair hair. His most distinctive feature was the scar around his neck that crawled up the side and vanished into his hair. He rubbed at his chin, surveying Norio before answering the question.

"They say you're going to marry her. I thought you should know something important about Sakura Haruno." He leaned across the table, looking at Norio with a completely sober face. "Everything about her is a lie."

Norio frowned at the unwelcome guest. "I suggest you leave. Your presence is unasked for and unwanted."

"Sakura calls out another man's name in the middle of the night. Have you noticed that?" The stranger set his drink on the table.

"How would you know?" Norio was struck by the stranger's tone and bold demeanor.

"I was her boyfriend and it was the worst mistake I ever made. It was bad enough that I was attacked by that traitorous former teammate of hers." He held up a hand to point to the scar along his neck. "And she didn't even help me out when she arrived. She just cried into his arms. If it weren't for Uzumaki, I'd be dead."

"Then she didn't even heal the wound right." He gave a sarcastic laugh. "And they say she's one of the best. When I heard her mumbling another man's name in my bed, I had had it. Don't be fooled by her. Some of the things that you love about her are the exact things she will use to screw you over."

The stranger shook his head. "You're the future leader of Land of Fire. The last thing I want for you is to be humiliated by a pretty face."

Intrigued, Norio poured the man another cup.

Chapter Text

Sakura turned the knob of the microscope as she peered through the lens. The colorful cell lit up in the background light, betraying that they had been contaminated with a virus. She noted the slight difference in its properties; it had been oblong the last time she had viewed it a few days ago. The virus had evolved once more, relinquishing its potency in favor of quick subjugation of the host cell. She sighed as she looked up from the microscope. They would have to try a new tactic in fighting back the virus. Sakura had received this strain from Iron Country; they often discovered the next evolution of the plague since that was where it originated. It was fortunate that the countries had settled their differences. The peacetime allowed them to keep an epidemic at bay.

Sakura's thoughts were broken by a rapping on the door. She looked up to see Sachi standing at the window that peered into her laboratory from the hall. Sakura walked over to the door of her laboratory and stepped out. "What?"

"The Hokage is requesting your presence. Again." She rolled her eyes. "Do you even work here anymore or are you just milking of your connections to have all of your afternoons off?"

Sakura tugged down the mask covering her mouth. "At least I don't sneak off to the hospital closet and make out with the male staff when I'm on the clock."

Sachi's face turned red. "I don't do that."

"Everyone can hear you snuffling in the closet." Sakura scowled. "You sound like an undignified moose."

Sachi sneered at Sakura before she flipped her hair and walked away. Sakura laughed to herself as she saw Sachi stomp down the hallway. She went back to her laboratory and began to tidy things up, picking up her slides and carefully putting them back in their place. She had only an hour left before she would call it a day, so there was no point in coming back. By the time she finished talking to Kakashi it would be time for her to have dinner with Norio.

She smiled to herself as she climbed up the many steps to reach the main hospital. She was fortunate that Norio had come to visit her this week. Clearly she had grown fond of him over the week, for what other reason would she feel so light? She gave a cheerful wave to the nurse at the front desk and stepped outside. The unexpected feeling of happiness continued and she hummed on her way to Hokage Tower.

She arrived at Kakashi's office, placing her bag near the doorway. He was standing with both palms on the surface of his desk and leaning over. Gravity forced his hair down and Sakura had the urge to tug at it with her hands and to feel the coarse strands of his hair. Then he would look up at her, tug his mask down, and she would see the faint scar above his lip as he smiled. That pleasant feeling bubbled inside of her, and it was then that Sakura noticed she was fantasizing. The revelation caught her by surprise and Sakura paused mid-step. Kakashi noticed her presence and looked up to smile at her.

The pleasure inside of Sakura intensified. Oh no.

"W-what are you doing?" Sakura stammered. She took a deep breath to quell the emotion inside of her, refusing to acknowledge it. Instead, she threw her concentration on the large map spread out on his desk. She could see trade routes and dates scribbled upon its surface, the oldest of which was three years ago.

"I was double checking a bit of information. I was making certain that the timeline was consistent with my thoughts. But you don't need to worry about it. Not right now anyway." He gave her another smile and Sakura wondered why her hands felt so sweaty.

"What did you need?" She plopped herself in the chair and rubbed her hands on the armrests to get rid of the perspiration.

"I wanted to ask you about the timeline about some of the antibiotics. I've contacted the villages in the area and you should be getting a response on their needs soon enough. However, I'm uncertain about the logistics of when to send the medics out."

"Why didn't you ask me?" she said with a frown. "I've been here almost every day this week.

Kakashi gave her a cold look. "I would have asked you, but every time you came into my office it was obvious that you weren't present."

"I don't understand what you mean."

"It means there was a woman who looked like you and smelled like you, but she did not sound or act like you."

Sakura bit her lip to hide her smile at his strange observation. Her traitorous mind noticed that Kakashi didn't say anything about taste. She laughed in embarrassment. How would he know?

Kakashi's head tilted the side. "Ah, there it is," he said softly.

"What?" Sakura held a hand to her face as if in self-consciousness. "Did I do something wrong?"

He shook his head. "I like that laugh. It's much better than whatever terrible noise you have been emitting while you're with Norio."

She sputtered with indignation. "I do not change my laugh."

"Oh, but you do," he said as he leaned closer to her, his eyes holding her captive. "It's high pitched and shrill. Why, I'm surprised you haven't summoned a giant bat to you."

Kakashi saw her pout unhappily, but she had not tried to smack him. There was a rap on the door and before Kakashi could say anything else, it opened.

Kakashi knew that something was wrong the moment Norio appeared. Every day that he had been in Konoha, Kakashi had seen a broad smile on Norio's face. It was absent this time around, and Kakashi's concern grew as his cousin crossed the room. Most nobles walked across the room with bravado, a gait carved from a pampered lifestyle and entitlement. The Ehime family was largely absent of this feeling of entitlement, aware that their power had its limitations. But Norio walked in with an aggressive swagger that indicated his need to establish himself as an Alpha.

Unfortunately, for Norio, there were already two Alphas in the room.

"Who is Tooru?" Norio demanded.

Kakashi glanced at Sakura, expecting a strained smile as she humored his attitude once more. He had not expected the stony expression that shuttered across her face or the rigid tension in her shoulders. Her soft smile had disappeared.

"I… Where did you hear that name?" she replied.

"You did not answer my question."

"I have my reasons for not answering the question. Where did you hear that name ?"

"You acknowledge your evasion, and yet still pose your own?" Norio ground out in frustration.

Kakashi's head swung back and forth as he observed their argument. As much as had hoped for the movement where their personalities would collide, there was something off. Norio was stubborn and expected things to go his way because of his noble standing. It was the way it had always been, and it was the reason that Norio had disliked Kakashi when they were younger. It was a good decade before Norio learned the truth and they were cordial to one another.

Norio had seen little of Sakura's own stubbornness, and did not know the only way to win an argument was to be more patient than her. Challenging her directly always led to unpleasant results. Anger was a motivation she could use to her advantage and already Kakashi could see the telltale signs of annoyance on her face. Her lips were pressed together and she was biting the inside of her cheek. But it was her eyes that had Kakashi concerned. They were hard and unyielding when they should have been burning with fire. Repression did not suit Sakura.

Kakashi knew both of them too well and this was not the confrontation he had been expecting. There was something unpleasant in the air and once again Kakashi was baffled by its true meaning. And on top of it all, he was eager to hear the answer to Norio's question.

"You don't need to worry about Tooru," Sakura snapped.

"I should think I do. I spoke to Masaru, and he mentioned the name. At first, I was leery of his words, for why should I listen to the diatribes of your former lover, a man who was unworthy of you?" Norio shook his head. "But all he wished was for Fire Country to remain strong and that my life is not tainted by the lies of a woman. He told me of the attributes that he most enjoyed about you, your smile, and your kind manner. These were the things that were reflected in my own heart.

"And then he told me of the mission when you failed to rescue him. He told me of how you embraced the traitorous Uchiha and failed to attend to Masaru's wounds. He spoke of that night when you arrived back in Konoha and how you fell asleep on his couch. And then he told me how you called out Tooru's name in the middle of the night and refused to say who he was." Norio's lip curled in displeasure.

"I recognized the name from somewhere and it took me a day to remember." Norio's voice turned bitter. "You said his name in your sleep during the journey to Snow Country. I asked Yori to see if there was a Tooru on our journey and he said that there was not. I had nearly forgotten about it, but now it is coming out that you keep his name in your dreams and heart. Who is he?"

The tension in the room was like electricity and Kakashi leaned in as curiosity nipped at his heels.

Sakura stood out of her seat and sent it skidding on the floor. "I said you don't need to worry about him! Drop the subject!"

"I disagree. It is important to know if my betrothed is actually the village harlot!"

"Norio," Kakashi snapped, "that was too far." He was surprised that Norio's verbal attack had yet to cause a scene of violence.

"Stay out of this, Kakashi," Norio said, as if he was fully aware of the third person in the room for the first time.

Kakashi turned to look at Sakura. He could see that her hands were clenched in anger. When she looked at him, he was surprised to see that they were a bit watery. "You should go, Kakashi," she said in a strained voice.

"Are you certain?" he asked her, more concerned about Norio's health than her own. She gave a stiff nod and he heard Norio grunt in irritation. Outnumbered, he made his way out of the office. "Don't say anything stupid," he said to Norio as he passed him.

It was moot advice; people like Norio believed that they were free to do or say whatever they wished. Not to mention he had already sown some pretty idiotic seeds. Kakashi had not even shut the door properly before Sakura started shouting.

Pausing, Kakashi noticed he could still hear the muffled thumps as something was tossed about in the room. His mind was burning with curiosity, but he knew only a fool would enter the room at the moment. He made his way outside to the benches that were placed along the Hokage Mountain. He pulled out his copy of Icha Icha Tactics and began to read. It was unfortunate that the pair had chosen his office to conduct their fight, but there was little he could do about it.

Ten minutes later, he was disturbed from his reading by a loud crash. He stood up in time to see the ugly boulder from Earth Country soar out the window and onto the garden behind him. Seconds later, he saw Sakura leap out of the wind and jumped away on the rooftops. Kakashi snapped his book shut and made his way to the garden where the boulder now sat. He nodded his head as looked at the rock.

"What do you think if we put a little garden here?" He questioned the ANBU guard standing nearby. "I think it would be a good place to meditate in the morning."

The ANBU guard stuttered, "I suppose so."

Kakashi frowned; he wasn't able to place the voice. It must be someone new. Perhaps Lee needed a little break after the debacle with the mob the other night. He was going to ask the guard a few more innocent questions but then he heard the door open. Kakashi turned to see Norio striding his direction with disheveled hair and a red face.

"The wedding is off," Norio snarled.

Kakashi turned back to look at the boulder, keeping his face impassive. If Norio caught a whiff of Kakashi's eagerness, the wedding would be back on before he could say "shotgun."

"What happened?" He questioned, tucking Tactics back into its rightful pocket.

"That woman is a terror. She is the most spiteful person that I have ever had the opportunity to meet."

Kakashi frowned in dismay. Has Norio ever had a proper conversation with a kunoichi? Most of them would not have taken the indulgent tones he spoke in as long as Sakura had. "I wouldn't say that."

"You have not seen her temper." Norio brushed at his clothes, straightening out nonexistent wrinkles. "She threw things at me, can you imagine?"

Kakashi could do more than imagine, as he had experienced Sakura's temper on more than one occasion. Yet, he remained unimpressed by Norio's protestations. "You disrespected her wish to drop the subject," he said with a sigh.

Norio's hand stopped patting his clothes. "Are you suggesting that this is my fault?"

"Sakura wields a tight control on her emotions," Kakashi explained. "Her actions are a reflection of her feelings. If she threw things at you, it is because you hurt her and she desires to hurt you back." He bit his tongue in his annoyance, irritated that such a plain fact of Sakura's personality had to be explained.

"She could have injured me!"

"She would have injured you if she aimed for you. But Sakura missed on purpose. She will calm down soon enough and you can apologize to her."

Norio scoffed. "I will not do anything of the sort. I had every right to interrogate her and she responded childishly. The wedding is off." Norio straightened his posture.

"Are you certain?"

"I have no more business to attend to in this village and will be departing in the next hour. I have already sent word to have my bags packed and the horse is being prepared as we speak." Norio crossed his arms in front of him, but Kakashi could see the disappointment in his eyes.

"This is rather abrupt." Kakashi didn't like the idea of the relationship being cut off in such a manner. He had hoped that she would call of the wedding, to reaffirm her own self-esteem and free herself from the shackles of an unneeded marriage. This development would leave her as the vulnerable party and Kakashi would have to deal with the fallout of Sakura's emotions.

"Perhaps. However, such nonsense will not be tolerated. It is barbaric and unsuited to be my lady."

" Barbaric?" Kakashi was unable to keep the irritation out of his voice. "All you have been talking about this week was how sweet and delicate she was. It was sickening."

The stern look on Norio's face faltered and Kakashi could see a genuine trace of remorse. They stood in awkward silence and Norio shuffled on his feet. Kakashi paid little attention to the nervous movement, once again practicing his tactic of patience. Finally, Norio relented.

"Tomio told me before I left that I should be certain that Sakura was a suitable partner before I left. He has harbored doubts since he first met her, but I had not paid them any credence. But she will be the woman for the rest of my life, Kakashi. She will have to conform into my world, and she will have to know her place. And if I cannot get her to answer a simple question, how am I supposed to have her willingly trade her entire world for mine?"

Norio turned to look down at Konoha, his hands resting on the guard rail. "If she apologizes to me, then she is the woman I believe her to be. If she does not, then it is for the best that the wedding is off." His hand wavered as he rubbed at his forehead. "She knows where to find me when she wishes to apologize."

Norio nodded at Kakashi and made his way down the steps, presumably to check on his horse. Kakashi turned to the ANBU guard. "Care to share some bad news with an angry kunoichi?"

There was a pause. "I'd rather not, Hokage-sama."

He sighed. "Give her two hours to cool off, and then search for her. When you have found her location, report back to me. I suppose that it's best if I share the news with her myself."

Kakashi went back up the steps and saw several nervous ninja huddled around the hallway. They parted before him, and Kakashi entered the office to see if it had been demolished. Most of the glass figurines that had been given to him as gifts were smashed on the floor. The large window was shattered when Sakura tossed the boulder. One of his chairs was broken, and the largest metal fan given to him by Suna was bent in half.

Shaking his head, he picked up the map he had set aside and left for his bedroom. He would let some of his peons take care of the mess.

He would have been able to find her even without the ANBU's report. She had fled straight for the training grounds and remnants of her destruction were everywhere. Kakashi passed several tree limbs, massive gouges in trunks, and there was still plenty of dust in the air where her fist met the earth. He found her sitting on a large jagged chunk of ear that jutted out from the ground.

"Yo."

He saw her head twist in his direction, but the curtain of hair in front of her eyes prevented his view of her face.

"Hi Kakashi."

He climbed up the rock to stand next to her, careful to remain a respectable distance.

"Your display of anger didn't go over too well with Norio. He wasn't too pleased."

"Yeah, I didn't…" Her voice came out raspy. "I'll apologize to him tomorrow. I should probably tell him, but I'm…" He heard her sniffle between pauses. "I don't feel up to apologizing today."

"Sakura, Norio left." He hated that he was the one to deliver the news but no one else knew them as he did.

"What?!" Sakura turned to him fully as she scrambled to her feet. "Why?"

"He doesn't like being told no. That's the way it is with nobles, even the tolerable ones like Norio." Kakashi hesitated with the last bit of news; the urge to keep quiet was overwhelming. But Sakura was more important than his own jealous thoughts.

"He called off the wedding, but if you go after him, I am certain he will take you back. He can't be too far away yet."

She stared at him, enough to make him grow uncomfortable with the attention. "Why are you telling me this? Don't you want to keep me for yourself?"

Kakashi broke his gaze with her, looking at a cracked tree truck a short distance away. "I want you to be happy. If he makes you happy, you should go after him."

She gave a watery laugh, crossing her arms as she held herself. "But I'm not. I'm not happy at all." She shook her head. "And shouldn't he be the one chasing me?" she asked as she tried to inject a bit of levity in her voice. But the attempt fell flat because Kakashi could see the tears at the edges of her eyes.

Kakashi cursed his idiocy. He had six specially made pockets courtesy of Ms. Tokushima and not a single one of them had a handkerchief. Weapons, scrolls and copies of Icha Icha were useless to him right now. He reached up to untie the black cloth around his left eye that hid the now dormant Sharingan.

"I'm afraid this is the best I have," he said as he handed it over to her.

She wrapped the cloth around her knuckles as she dapped at the tears in her eyes. Sakura paused to stare at the cloth in wonderment, her mouth parting slightly. She stepped closer to him and her hand rose to touch the scar around his eye, the thumb brushed along his mask-covered lips. Sakura lowered her gaze, balling the cloth in her hand.

"Please," she whispered. "I need someone."

Kakashi's heart sank with her words, disappointed that his presence was so easily replaceable with anyone else. But he did not protest when Sakura pressed herself against him, her hands clinging to his vest. He wrapped his arms around her as she began to sob.

And when she began to shake, he only held her tighter.

~O~

Visitors were frequent to the bar; the village was located along one of the main routes through Grass Country. Most of the people who gathered there were farmers, there for a bit of gossip after a long day in the fields. It was a dim and rickety building, but that's the way everything was in the village. But it had a fair amount of strangers, their faces and accents foreign to the region. No one ever asked for names in the village, too many dangerous travelers came through to make it a safe practice. Names meant reputations earned with spilled blood of bounties and death. It was safer to turn a blind eye and be cordial.

One of the local men cast his eye in the direction of two females who entered. They were pretty, with the kind of bodies that spoke of a civilian life rather than a ninja. Still, one could never know for sure, and when the women noticed him staring, the farmer gave a polite nod and went back to his business.

"He was looking at you," the blonde whispered to her friend. "You should go say hello to him."

"I don't know," whispered the other. "What happens if he was just being nice?"

"Then go be nice back," the blonde said with the waggle of her eyebrows as she pulled out a stool at the front of the bar. Her friend sat next to her, a pout on her face. "You're just disappointed because you didn't get to see the Hokage."

The other girl blushed. "I am not," she said in a faint whisper. "And even if I saw the Hokage, there is no guarantee that anything would have come from it."

"Doesn't change the fact his page of the Bingo book has been taped on the wall of your room since you were twelve."

"Excuse me," said a male voice. "I couldn't help but overhear, but you said something about the Hokage? The last I heard, it was the Sannin, Tsunade and not a male. Am I to understand that the post had been given to someone else?"

The blonde woman turned to the stranger next to her. "O-oh, yuh-yes." She found herself stuttering as she saw the handsome man next to her. "I'm surprised that you haven't heard about it. All the villages have been talking about the big news."

The man smiled. "Pardon. I have been ill as of late, and have not been able to leave my home. I was on my way to visit my sister and this is the first I have heard of it."

"Oh you poor thing! I hope you are feeling better."

"Quite. And who is the new Hokage of Konoha?"

"Kakashi Hatake, the Ninja of the Sharingan," piped up the timid woman. The man turned his eyes to her and she flushed and went back to staring at her cup.

"Kakashi," said the man, his mouth savoring each syllable as he mulled in his thoughts. "You have been quite helpful." He stood out of his seat and made his way to the exit, leaving behind his glass of water.

"Oh wow, did you see his eyes?" the blonde asked her friend.

"No," replied her friend, still thinking about the face being carved onto Hokage Mountain.

"I've never seen anything like them; they were red and swirly." She sighed. "I could have stared into his eyes for years ."

Chapter Text

Naruto leaned against the rock and he nibbled on the writing utensil in his hand. He pondered the next sentence, his eyes squinted in concentration. Nodding to himself, he leaned over and began to scribble on the parchment in his lap.

The dew rested on the wild and broad lawn.

The drops glistened in the light of early dawn.

Grass that grew wherever it was planted,

Soft and sweet, fools take it for granted.

"What the hell are you writing?"

Naruto's hand jolted in surprise and left a smear of ink across his poem. He looked up to see a woman with violet hair, her nose wrinkled as she examined his work.

"Is that a love poem to grass ?" She gave Naruto a coy look and spread out her arms as she indicated to the field behind her. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Was this a private moment between you and the fields? Should I leave you alone?"

"No!" Naruto crumpled up the parchment and stuffed it into his pocket, aware of the burning in his ears. He glared at the woman. "There was nothing to do. I was bored and alone."

The woman snorted. "That's the excuse that all men use when they are embarrassed about a relationship."

"I am not in love with grass," Naruto said in exasperation. He gave her a more careful look, slightly curious on how she managed to sneak up on him. "Hey, haven't I met you before?"

"I was at the Hokage's celebration a few months ago," Kasumi replied as she twiddled with the ornamental strands of grain tucked in her hair. "I made quite an impression there."

"Oh yeah!" Naruto nodded his head as he recognized her, a broad smile on his face. "You were the hooker that drank Anko under the table."

Kasumi gave him a frigid look. "I am a kunoichi from Mist. Not a hooker. If you confuse me as one of those again, I will hurt you, Uzumaki."

Naruto gulped. He wasn't frightened by many things, but he wasn't stupid either. She obviously knew who he was and she wasn't afraid to threaten him.

"Sorry," he apologized.

"You need to be on your guard." Kasumi gave the fields a suspicious glance. "Uchiha has been seen around these parts."

Naruto leapt to his feet, the scribbled poem falling from his lap. "Sasuke? Are you sure it was him?"

"I was not the one who saw him. I heard it from a man, who heard it from a bartender, who heard it from his brother, who saw it himself."

"Er… that doesn't sound very reliable," Naruto said in doubt. "They might have lied to you."

Kasumi pursed her lips in disdain. "These sorts of rumors don't circulate without a grain of truth and the men involved know better than to waste my time with nonsense. Uchiha has kept a low profile for several months and he knows better than to be seen in public. He must be plotting something if he has become so lax. Keep your mind sharp, stay focused and stop writing poetry." She turned away from him.

"Wait! Where are you going?"

"I need to notify the Hokage. We have been waiting for Uchiha to show himself for months, and we cannot allow him to slip between our fingertips once more."

~O~

The news had spread like the fiercest of fires, the old ladies and young men equally curious of the rumors. Too many had seen Sakura's distress when she fled to the forest after the mighty argument and saw the stoic face on Norio Ehime. No one knew quite what to think; some leaned in Norio's favor, and others lent their loyalty to Sakura, remembering the care she had placed when she healed their wounds. Despite their whispers and the sly glances, none were bold enough to question Sakura on the matter themselves- except for one.

Six days after the outburst, Ms. Tokushima gave Sakura's door three knocks before she let herself into the apartment. Sakura barely glanced at Ms. Tokushima from her seat on the couch as her neighbor made her way to the curtains.

"You shouldn't sit here moping in the darkness," Ms Tokushima said as she flung the curtains open. "You need to go back to work and take your mind off of things."

Sakura sighed. "They gave me several days off so I could recuperate." Her voice was rusty from disuse and she picked up her cup of tea to ease her dry mouth. The beverage had become cold and unpleasant since she served it and Sakura grimaced as it slid down her throat. "Ino and Tenten are on a mission. Naruto is still on border patrol. Shikamaru and Chouji don't care, and Kiba likes spreading rumors. No one else knows me very well, and I'm tired of dealing with nosy people. I think I'll stay in here with the dust mites."

Ms. Tokushima removed the cold mug from Sakura's hands as she stepped into the tiny kitchen. "Well, you could speak to Kakashi."

Sakura opened her mouth to speak and then paused. Kakashi?

She had noticed the gradual shift of respect to deference as people became accustomed to Kakashi's new title. Before there would have been the gruff and casual mention of his surname, but now there was a note of reverence. Only those closest to him said his first name anymore, but most others of his acquaintance stuck to the formal titles. Those closest to him knew that Kakashi was more interested in counting the leaves than his title.

At the age of seventeen, Sakura delivered Kakashi a lengthy ramble on the subject. On the one hand, she did not want to show disrespect. On the other, he did not seem too keen to encourage its use. Incidentally, that was also the day she discovered Kakashi could sleep with his eyes open.

Ms. Tokushima referred to him with familiarity. Sakura knew her neighbor designed his wardrobe, but was there more to it than that?

"Are you well acquainted with him?" Sakura inquired innocently from her seat in the living room.

"I see him quite frequently nowadays," Ms. Tokushima responded in a nonchalant voice.

Sakura's suspicion grew; it was far too convenient of an excuse. "Well, Kakashi is very good at listening." Her body was tense as she waited for Ms. Tokushima's response.

"And handsome as well."

Sakura stood up from her seat and stepped into the kitchen area. She clenched a hand into a fist to hold back her frustration. She thought Ms. Tokushima would be one of the people who would be the most understanding. "Why are you trying to set me up with him?"

Ms. Tokushima paused for a fraction of a second before she continued washing the dishes. "Because, my dear, I think he deserves a chance."

Sakura scoffed in response. "You didn't even know who he was until a few months ago."

"Correction," said Ms. Tokushima in a prim voice. "I had not met him, but I most certainly have heard of him."

"That's not a good argument. And besides, I just broke up with Norio!" Sakura could feel the heat of her anger rise to her face. Ms. Tokushima had been the best neighbor she could have ever hoped for and discovering the kindly woman's hidden agenda was disappointing to say the least.

Ms. Tokushima dried off her hands with a dish towel. "My three sons all became shinobi and they all were assigned missions under Kakashi Hatake when they became chunin. I saw the change in them every time, in which the work they performed became more than a duty- it became a privilege. Perhaps you have worked with him too much to realize the inner strength the Hokage possesses. But for me, the change in my sons was all too easy to see. My sons stood up straighter, they polished the metal plate of their headband, and they were proud to be members of Konoha. Kakashi Hatake returned my sons back to me alive and turned them into men. Do you know what a rarity that is? Many leaders don't bother caring.

"I was curious when I saw him the first time in the hall, but what other reason would a man linger at your door? And when I confronted him on the subject, he told me of his plans for you. He is not a love struck boy like so many who came before, those with idealistic thoughts that cannot match reality. He is a man who is not afraid to admit his faults. I suppose that is what makes him great- he is not afraid to ask for help or to show the humanity hidden behind his mask. Many men would attempt to shackle you into a small role, but he encourages you to climb higher."

Ms. Tokushima gave Sakura a comforting pat. "I know it's up to you, Sakura. But I think he truly wants to make you happy."

~O~

The elderly woman from the Hyuga Clan sniffed as she looked around the room. "You really ought to add something to your office. It looks as barren as the Suna desert."

Kakashi gave a tight smile as he escorted her outside of the room. "I was just having a few things cleaned," he responded. "There was a bit of excitement here the other day."

That was an understatement. The argument Sakura had with Norio had left his office in shambles. The windows along the wall had to be replaced and three chairs were smashed. The glass figurines he had received as gifts for his promotion were shattered. The only one that had escaped Sakura's wrath was a small turtle Kasumi delivered from the Mizukage.

Kakashi didn't know how to feel about that odd fact. Sakura had little qualms about destroying his office in order to make an explicit point to Norio. Yet, she had enough presence of mind to leave the symbolic items alone. The tapestry from the Raikage had a rip in it, but it was as if she had paused midway in her anger and channeled it in something else. The metallic fans from Suna were untouched and the Rock from Iwa now had a new home. It was odd.

Either way, he was going to have to do something about his office. People were using the barren room as an opening to ask some not-so-sly questions about Sakura. Kakashi was tired of fielding the questions and the unwanted guests.

The constant questions reminded him of his own conundrum; he still didn't know who Tooru or Ikuye was.

He had searched the village records to see if someone in the village had that same name. There was one, a small boy at the age of nine who attended the Academy with the name of Tooru. His casual questions to Iruka and the other Academy teachers had yielded little results. As far as they knew she had never met the boy before, and there was no reason that they should have crossed paths. The only person named Ikuye was a woman who had died seven years ago. Sighing to himself, he picked up some of the scrolls from his desk and made his way down the stairs.

"I'll be back," he said to the ninja at the front desk as he dropped off an assignment for Yamato.

The brisk winter chill began to settle in as winter began to take hold in Konoha. The thick crowd of tourists had left and the streets were no longer thick with strangers. There was still the occasional glance by the villager who was unaccustomed to seeing Kakashi, but he no longer had to worry about the stares and squeals that had followed him just the previous month.

Or the groping. Kami, the groping.

He stopped into one of his favorite restaurants and placed his order, assuring the cook he would be back in a few minutes. Then he made his way to the ornamental shop that was a block away.

The young woman behind the counter looked up from her magazine. "Hokage-sama! What brings you here?" Her eyes were wide as she looked at Kakashi. He had the urge to reach out and tap his hand under her chin so she would close her mouth.

"I needed some glass figurines for the wall of my office. A few of them were broken the other day and I need to replace them."

"Oh, let me get father- he's in the back." She gave a bow and a small blush as she darted to the back.

Kakashi frowned as she disappeared into the back room. It wasn't as if he particularly cared about the decorations. He glanced at the shelves of figurines nearest to him. It was of a young girl, her face tilted upward as she looked at the brilliant red kite that floated in the sky. It might be meaningless decoration, but even Kakashi could see the skill in crafting such delicate details.

The reedy man with brown hair came from the back, a bag in hand. "What did you have in mind?" His face was flushed pink; the joy of having Kakashi in his story was all too clear.

"I need some to replace the figurines in my office that were broken. I think fifteen will suffice." He pointed to a fat frog that was perched on a nearby shelf, the glass colored a pale green. "Any of them that are about that size will do."

"Ah, that is an excellent choice, Hokage-sama." The shopkeeper gave a respectful nod of his head before he scuttled off to find some paper to wrap it in and a cardboard box. His daughter approached Kakashi with a timid smile. He leaned over.

"I don't really care which ones they are, I just need it so my office doesn't look so plain. The little old ladies keep complaining when they visit. Maybe it would be better if you picked?"

The daughter giggled behind in her hand. "Do you have a summon?"

"I have several ninken."

"In that case, you must have a dog for your collection. And of course a tree to represent the village would be a good choice." She plucked a tag off the statues of her choice. "Oh, I know a few more in the back!"

Kakashi smiled as he saw her scurry away. At least he didn't have to pretend to care.

Half an hour later, Kakashi left the store with two large bags. The shopkeeper gave a cheerful wave as he held the door open. "Come back at any time, Hokage-sama."

Kakashi made a quick stop at the restaurant to pick up his order of food and made his way back to the sanctuary of his office. He placed the bags by his desk and prepared himself to eat. It was somewhat irritating how much of his time was occupied with paperwork. The smells of food had made his mouth water the entire way back and he was looking forward to his break. Kakashi had just finished eating when he heard a soft knock on the door.

Sakura entered with a slumped posture and her head hung low. In the week that had passed, she had lost some weight. Sakura was a petite girl to begin with, so even a little weight loss was noticeable on her frame. It galled him to admit it, but Sakura may have been more attached to Norio than he thought.

"I'm sorry I made a mess of your office," she said after the pause. Kakashi frowned as he looked at her.

"That's quite alright," he replied evenly as he placed the take-out container in the trash. It was hard to be annoyed with her when she looked so down.

Sakura bit her bottom lip. "I was talking to Shizune about the trade routes for antibiotics and vaccines. She's in charge of the hospital shifts and was wondering if you were going to get around to planning the missions. We need to make time for that."

"Ah, I wasn't quite certain how that worked out. I'll talk to her tomorrow about that."

"What is that?" Sakura asked as she lifted the cardboard box on his desk. "I thought you finished unwrapping all of your presents by now."

"My new glass ornaments to replace the ones you broke." Kakashi replied dryly. "It took five minutes before someone came into my lonely office to tell me I needed more personality in here." He waved a hand dismissively as she opened her mouth to apologize again. "There have been several times when I have felt like throwing things at Norio myself. I'm grateful that you didn't actually aim for him."

She wiggled in place as she stared at her feet. "I'll put them up for you if you want."

"You don't have to do that."

"It's the least I could do. I need the distraction anyway." Sakura pulled a box out of the bag and opened it. "Ooh! I like this one." Sakura held up the tree. "It reminds me of that parable about letting a tree grow unhindered."

Kakashi blinked as he processed the statement, uncertain how to respond. If he was correct, she was referencing the story that he told the children in Snow Country. "Maybe," he said evasively.

"I like that one, although I can't really remember where I heard it." A pensive look crossed her face, before she shook her head and dismissed the thought. "Where should I put the tree?"

"Any place on the back shelf is fine," Kakashi replied as he signed his name on a report. "There isn't really an order to them."

"Well, I think such a majestic tree deserves to be in the middle." Sakura said as she placed it on the shelf. She giggled. "It sort of reminds me of Yamato too."

Kakashi continued to flick through his paperwork as Sakura began to hum in the background. He was touched by her presence and her silent company. It was a welcome change from some of the strange people who knocked on his door or the long silence that usually overtook his afternoons.

He stood up to search through one of the filing cabinets that were off to the side. He heard Sakura begin to open cardboard to take out the figurine, and then he heard something shatter.

"Sakura?" He walked over to her, curious. Her back was to him and he could see the tension in her shoulders. As he rounded the desk he caught a tart whiff of iron.

Sakura's hands were clenching a small glass figure and there was blood dripping out from her grasp. She did not look up at him as he wrapped his hands around hers. He tried to remove the glass figure from her hands, but her grip grew tighter and the wounds deepened. Kakashi's concern grew as the blood drenched his fingers.

"Sakura!"

Startled, her unfocused eyes flew up to look up at his face and her grip loosened. He heard the pieces land on the floor, some of them breaking into smaller pieces. He glanced at her face for some explanation of her bizarre reaction. He wanted to see her embarrassed by her outburst, perhaps teary and emotional. Keeping his eyes on hers, Kakashi removed a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to her hands.

Instead Kakashi was treated by an unnatural silence. The tears fell from her eyes quietly and her gaze became haunted. He longed to hold her, to wrap her in his arms and feel her sobs in his chest. He wanted her to be vibrant and lively and lean on him. It was altogether wrong that he was the most emotional in the room.

When she finally spoke, her words were soft and even.

"She loved kites." Sakura licked her lips before continuing. "Every afternoon she would go and fly one. She was gifted, of course, so it wasn't as if her assignments took her a long time to complete. And as soon as it was in the air she would tie it to a fence post in the backyard. She would sit along the fence and stare at it for hours. And when she was done, she would take a kunai and cut the string. The kite would fall and crash to the ground." Sakura had looked up to Kakashi and was squeezing his hand. "That was her favorite part of the morning, you see, the part where the kite would tumble from the sky and break."

Kakashi swallowed, almost afraid to ask. "Who?"

"Ikuye."

Kakashi raised his eyes to look at Sakura's face, surprised to hear the name of the elusive person he had yet to discover. He raised a hand to brush at the tears that had trailed down her face and shied from his touch. There were so many questions that danced at the tip of his tongue.

Kakashi stayed silent, worried that another question would frighten her and she would fall into silence once again.

Her hands reached forward to grab at his vest, pulling him closer in angry desperation. "That's what he did to me. He didn't perform Tsukuyomi on me. I wished he had- the torture would have been preferable. I would have been able to recover without too much trouble. But Sasuke, I don't know why, but he looked into my eyes and gave me something else. He had to make me love him." She gave a bitter smile.

"The Sharingan spun and he put me into hypnosis. Breakfast, day, and dinner were replayed in my head over and over again. Little details were changed, the weather, the clothes that were worn, so it felt like time passed. That's all that time is… a series of memories and the Sharingan made them so real that I believed it. I have this life that I never lived.

"He made me love him. He made me love our children. He made me love Ikuye and Tooru so much. I watched them grow in my mind and they were so perfect and real that it hurts."

Kakashi's eyes widened as Sakura's confession came tumbling out.

"It was wonderful." She shook her head as she clenched her eyes shut. "I don't remember falling in love with Sasuke, but I remember the wedding. I remember waking up the next day and serving him tea before he woke up. I remember finding out I was pregnant and waddling down the street as he carried a basket of food next to me as we bought fruit.

"I remember Tooru's birth and the soft weight of my baby boy in my arms. He had dark hair and dark eyes, but my nose. He liked to smile. Naruto used to tease Sasuke about how Ikuye had her father wrapped up in her little finger...and then Sasuke laughed, and he agreed ."

She choked back a sob. "And then the Sharingan stopped spinning. My ear was bleeding, and my boyfriend was moaning in the background and I was tired. I preferred the lie."

Sakura wrenched her hands away and pressed them to her face. "Do you know what it's like to mourn something that doesn't exist? To know that the world you knew and loved was nothing but the illusions of a psycho? That my children were never real … even though I swear I can still feel the Ikuye's kiss on my cheek and the smell of Toru's baby powder?

"Nine years of my life vanished. I couldn't remember who I was, who I had been. Landmarks from parts of the village had disappeared. It was hard remembering that those missions I had with Ino and Shikamaru didn't exist. I would find myself getting ready to pick my children up and then I would remember I don't have any ." Sakura raised her hands to head, her fingers digging into her hair in grief.

"Norio was going to take me away from the Academy, from the memories that only I have. It didn't matter if I loved him. He was new and different and he couldn't hurt me. I convinced myself it could work out, but I was wrong. Even that wasn't enough. I can't marry anyone. And you…" She looked at him with watery eyes. "Not even you can compare to perfection."

She ran out of the room and Kakashi stared numbly at the doorway where she vanished.

It was several moments before Kakashi moved and saw the bloody remains of the glass figurine on the floor. The girl had been snapped in two and the red kite cast off without a tether. Kakashi picked up the pieces and tossed them into the trash bin by his desk. One thought occupied his mind as he heard the pieces clink to the bottom.

He should have killed Sasuke when he had the chance.

Chapter Text

She was haunting him.

Throughout the week Sakura was there, even when he assigned missions or he sat in boring meetings. Kakashi tried to focus on his work, but in the silence of his office he would hear the echo of her whisper.

" Not even you can compare to perfection."

What could he possibly say in response? Kakashi could all too well remember the forceful pull of Tsukuyomi and the illusion it crafted. He could still remember Itachi's sword as it dug at his insides. It was still vivid in his mind, fiercer that some of the memories from the previous week. It would be so easy to twist the powerful illusion into something else. To Sakura, nine years of her life had vanished into nothing. Who was he nine years ago? Tsunade had not returned to the village. He had just participated in Gai's bet with the llama. He had yet to meet a genin team worthy of his attention. Sakura was still a timid girl with a strong crush and long hair. Naruto was a hyperactive and unfocused student. Sasuke had yet to discover his Sharingan or the depths of shady politics.

Kakashi ran a hand through his hair as he watched the sun come up in the horizon from his living room window. A daydream played in his head as he imagined a scene from that time.

He would pay his respects at the memorial for the day and make his way down the village street. There was Sakura, clutching a bento as she made her way down the street with Ino, her hair pulled back in a red ribbon. He would turn the corner and see Gai racing down the street, three exhausted genin trailing behind him. Gai would give a loud cry of hello, causing a startled woman to drop her basket of fruit. He would help her with it and she would graciously give him an apple as a thank you. The apple would be shined against his jonin vest as he continued to make his way to Hokage Tower. A wail to his left would cause him to turn his head to see a ball of yellow racing by. Naruto would be holding up his unbuckled trousers as he hurried down the street.. Kakashi would chuckle to himself and turn around, just in time to see Asuma coming out of a restaurant.

The daydream clogged in his brain. Asuma would still be alive.

No wonder Sakura had withdrawn from missions and retreated to the quiet research department of the hospital. Kakashi's daydream made his heart beat faster and he tried not to further indulge his thoughts.

Irritated with himself, he walked over to the dining table to look at the maps scattered on top. There were colored lines crossing the surface of the map, indicating trade routes from past missions. His finger traced a thick red line that went from Water Country along the border of fire to Sound. Kakashi's finger paused at a village where the red line met a vibrant green one.

His eyes widened in realization.

Two Years Ago…

As villages go, the town wasn't in bad shape. It had escaped the devastation which had plagued other nearby towns that had been destroyed in the wake of the great bijuu war. The only real problem that Kakashi could see was that the village had grown too fast, too soon, and there were too many people packed into the existing homes. It gave the town a seedy look; the garbage was piled on street corners with nowhere else to go. The outskirts of the town were filled with men hammering away as they built new homes for the inhabitants. The men had dirt smudged on their faces, a sign that there was a limited water supply. However, there were several stores, a village leader and a sense of stability.

The troop of unified ninja had passed through several areas that were in chaos due to a power struggle and there was no one willing to take the position of leadership. It was because of this that his "small" mission assigned to him by Tsunade was taking so long. Seven months in the journey and they had only made it a third of the way through. At this rate, Kakashi would be lucky to return to Konoha in three years. The farthest village was at the end of the list and several of them were thinking about adding a visit to Iron Country.

Still, there was nothing that could be done about the sluggish pace of their travels. They could pass by the ruined villages without giving a hand, but that defeated the entire purpose of their mission. Returning stability to every nation was part of their mission. Every rickety town brought about a few weeks of building, and a discussion with the villagers. Kakashi's favorite days were when he was leaving and he could see the tiny towns bursting with promise. It was the only reason he never mentioned the feeling of homesickness that had begun to creep inside of him.

Too many wars, battles, and lost lives had made him sensitive to his latent fears. He had always suffered from restless sleep after a long departure, worrying that his village would be gone when he returned. Before those fears had always vanished upon waking, paranoid thoughts that slipped into his sleep like an unwanted specter. But that had changed after the one time he woke up and the village really had been destroyed. Even though he knew that they were entering a golden time of peace, his rationality failed to quell his long-standing anxiety. Kakashi knew that he needed to see a familiar face to shake the feeling, even for a little while.

The other ninjas had balked at his slight detour when he proposed it, but Kakashi knew they would give in. Disobedience was a rare occasion. His approach was always the same; aim for the mind and heart, and then practice a bit of patience. The effects of his words were not instantaneous, but it usually worked. He was successful once more, and thus they had finally arrived in a village that was not in need of their aid.

After eating dinner with several of his companions, Kakashi broke away from them with a mission of his own. He walked down the village street, ducking in every bar, tavern and inn. None of them seemed like the place he was looking for. Perplexed, he decided to ask a local. He passed by a group of middle-aged women carrying brown satchels, but approached a man carrying a bag of groceries whose face smudged with dirt.

"Excuse me," Kakashi said as he caught up with the stranger. "Where can I find the best local bar?"

"Down that way, second building to your left," the man directed. "It's by the bakery."

Kakashi gave his thanks and made his way down the street. He found the bar easily enough. There were several people gathered at the exit talking amongst each other. Kakashi stepped inside, the smoke and pungent alcohol hitting his nose before he had stepped through the doorway. It was an unremarkable building, nothing beautiful to attract the attention of travelers. Kakashi scouted the tavern and quickly found his target.

He made his way over to the man behind the counter, ignoring the intense gaze from the side. "Give me the bottle with your highest alcohol percentage."

The bartender hesitated before he reached behind him and pulled out a glass bottle. "Be careful with this stuff. It could knock out a bull with one sip." He pulled out a couple of glasses, popped in some ice, and pushed it across the counter.

"Perfect," Kakashi muttered when he took a whiff of the alcohol. He picked up the cups and made his way to a corner booth where a beautiful woman was sitting alone.

"Hello there," he said as he slid a cup across the table so it stopped in front of a woman with dark hair. She had a vicious look on her face when she noticed that Kakashi was speaking to her. He popped open the bottle and poured her a glass. "Mind if I keep a lovely lady company?"

"Get lost pervert," said the female in an icy tone. "If I wanted company I would already have some."

"Mmmm…" Kakashi poured himself his own glass and tugged down his mask. He knocked back the liquid in his cup with a dramatic motion. His mouth grew numb as the drink hit his system. "Damn, that is strong," he said thickly as he sat down at the booth.

"I said for you to get lost!"

"I have gotten lost before, lost on the road of life." Kakashi gave a roguish smile. "At least, I think I have used that excuse on you before. It's hard for me to remember. It's been so long since I last saw you, Sasuke."

He placed a piece of ice in his mouth as he watched the henge out of the corner of his eye. "You really ought to try that drink," he said as he crunched on the ice. "It's fantastic. Nice and smooth."

"I'll pass," replied Sasuke, still in his female form. "Tell me, did you know I was wearing a henge before or after you came over? Or do you hit on all of your former students?"

Kakashi shrugged as poured himself another glass. "Before, of course. You're wearing a headband to indicate you're a kunoichi to scare off the civilians. However, that is a modification of Naruto's sexy jutsu you are using instead of a normal henge, so your breasts are on the larger side. If you were a real woman you would be wearing mesh and binding to give the appropriate amount of support.

"Couple those facts with your petulant attitude, and I knew it was you right away. And you'll be happy to know that you are the first of my beloved former students I have approached. Although…" Kakashi rubbed his chin. "I suppose it's only a matter of time before I get around to the other two now that everyone has grown up."

The unexpected admission gave Sasuke pause as a brief look of astonishment crossed his female face. "Are you…" He couldn't seem to finish the sentence and Sasuke cleared his throat. "Do you like men as well?"

Kakashi gave a little chuckle as he watched Sasuke's eyes open in genuine curiosity. "There's many a man who enjoy a little anal stimulation," Kakashi responded blithely. Small alarm bells went off in his head, but he ignored them and leaned in closer. "I like your hair." He raised his hand with an intention to curl a lock between his fingers.

Sasuke immediately dropped the henge and the pretty woman vanished back into the sullen teenager. "Why are you here, Kakashi?"

"I'm not here for you…just came by to say hello." He saw Sasuke frown. "What?"

"Tsk. I've only had the henge dropped for a minute and there's already a woman approaching."

"Woe is you," responded Kakashi in a dry tone. A shadow cast over him as a familiar person stepped next to the table.

"Is that you, Kashi?" Kasumi was leaning over him with a broad smile on her face. "Oh, it is you!"

"Hello, Beautiful," he murmured as she slid into his lap.

"I'm so surprised to see you! After our last tiff, I didn't think you would talk to me again." Her cheeks were very pink and Kakashi knew she had been hitting the alcohol for quite sometime. "Who is your guest, Kashi?"

"That's Sasuke," Kakashi replied as he wrapped his arms around her waist. "He doesn't want his drink."

"You don't?" asked Kasumi in horror. She wiggled in Kakashi's lap as she reached across the table for the glass. "I'll take it then." She took a heavy swig from the cup, her eyes widening as its contents emptied down her throat. She tossed her head back with her eyes closed, savoring the sensation.

"You don't know what you are missing," she said with a lick of her lips. "This is the best." Kasumi gave a giggle and winked at Kakashi.

"I thought you would like it," Kakashi said.

Kasumi gave him a coy smile and then turned back to Sasuke. "Don't be a spoilsport, take a little sip." She poured some in the glass and waved it in front of him.

"No." Sasuke had a look of distaste on his lips, his eyes followed her errant hand.

"Just one!" Kasumi reached forward to force the liquid down Sasuke's throat and he grabbed her arm in defense.

"I don't know what you…" Sasuke stopped mid-sentence and blinked rapidly. Kakashi saw the Sharingan fade away to dark brown, before the eyes crossed and Sasuke slumped forward on the table with a heavy thud.

"Is he out?" asked Kakashi.

Kasumi crawled off of his lap and gave him a frown. "Of course he is out. I'm not a genin." She tugged at a loose strand of her violet hair and pinned it back in place. "Do you want some help?"

"That would be appreciated. I drank quite a bit myself." He tugged at Sasuke's arm and snapped on the handcuffs. "How long will he be out?"

"For ten minutes or so. Do you want me to knock him out more?"

"No, that's just enough." He took another drink from his glass. "I want you to come with us."

Kasumi gave him a look of disbelief. "What? Aren't you on that mission to return the bijuu? I thought Ao was with you."

"He is," replied Kakashi as tossed Sasuke over his shoulder. "The mission has been going slowly. There is no one who can heal on our team. Everyone is a fighter. When we go to devastated villages, there are a lot of sick people. We need a medic and you are suited for the task." He walked out onto the street, leading her to the inn where he was staying.

"Even if I was suited for the task, the Mizukage wouldn't allow it. I'm too important for their medical community to go gallivanting about with you. She doesn't like you and I know she will refuse."

"I've already written a letter to her and she said it would be okay for a year. We need a medic that can keep up and you can replenish your chakra faster than most. We'll pick up another medic on Earth when we get there." Kakashi blinked. "Mei hates me?"

"You stole all of her jutsu!" Kasumi said as she held open the inn door.

"Mmm… that was years ago. She has mastery over her kekkei genkai now anyway." He grunted as he went up the stairs to his room.

Kasumi snorted. "You have no idea how difficult it is to establish oneself as a kunoichi. The Mizukage worked very hard on those jutsu. Her kekkei genkai were difficult to master and many of her less talented family members died because they were too impatient. Over half of them end up drowning because they fill their lungs with water. Those jutsu were the only thing she had in her arsenal at the time and you snatched it away from her in seconds."

"You say that like it's a bad thing." Kakashi placed Sasuke's sluggish form in the chair. He gave Sasuke a hard poke in the eye, but he didn't react.

"A Leaf ninja showing off water-jutsu? It is appalling."

Kakashi gave her a smug grin. "Yet, it is the very thing that attracted you to me."

Kasumi scowled. "Don't act so smug. And I'm not going with you on the mission."

"It will be fun. We can sing songs with Killer Bee and have sex in Ao's sleeping bag."

A small smile danced on her lips. "I don't think he would like that very much."

"No, I don't imagine he would," Kakashi replied as he tied a cloth across Sasuke's eyes. "Can you watch the door? I would rather talk to Saskuke alone."

"That's fine with me." Kasumi sniffed in disdain. "But I haven't agreed to go with you!"

Kakashi shook his head as the door closed with a snap, knowing that she had already made up her mind to join him. He heard Sasuke's breathing increase as he tied Sasuke to the chair. Kakashi sat on the bed waiting for Sasuke to finish waking up. A pleasant buzz was still lingering in his head from his earlier consumption.

"Are you awake, Sasuke?"

"What did you do to me?" his former student rasped.

Kakashi chuckled. "That is what most people call a hangover." He pressed a glass of water to Sasuke's lips. "Drink."

Sasuke opened his mouth, drops of water dribbling from his lips. "I didn't even have a sip."

"No," Kakashi said as he cheerfully recalled the comical vision of Sasuke's eyes crossing before he passed out. "However, you touched Kasumi's arm. Therefore you are now experiencing the worst hangover known to man. I've seen some people attempt to fight with broken backs, but I've never seen them get up from a hangover."

A frown appeared. "I don't understand."

"Kasumi is a medical ninja. She told me that her chakra reserves were so low as a child that her teacher told her the best she could was work in the hospital. She didn't have enough chakra reserves to survive a mission. So she grew up, studied at the hospital, and then you know what she did? She performed an experiment on herself in order to change it. Do you remember Chouji?"

"Yeah, the fat kid."

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "I've forgotten how long you have been gone. Chouji is not fat. He derives a great deal of chakra from food and stores it up for later use. Kasumi does the same thing from alcohol. Her liver functions as some sort of refinery; she just needs some sort of foodstuff to create some in her body. Do you know how many things you can make alcohol from? She sent it through her blood to her skin and when you touched her that was enough to knock you out cold.

"But I didn't want to talk to you about that. I wanted to talk to you about what an idiot you are. What were you thinking ?"

"That's none of your business, Kakashi."

"None of my business?" he asked in a raised voice, taking sadistic pleasure as Sasuke winced in pain. "You were my student and you tossed that in my face. People gave you opportunity , people gave you an escape without repercussions and you refused."

"What was I supposed to do? Konoha killed my family and they manipulated my brother."

"I wasn't talking about the time you were twelve. If I couldn't have done anything about it, I certainly don't expect that you could have either. No, I am talking about right here and right now. Grow up . Get over your resentment, get over your grief and start living your life. Stop wasting the Uchiha name. You have already sullied it, so fix it and make something of yourself."

Sasuke's voice was very terse. "As if you'd understand what I'm going through."

"Stop acting entitled. You think you are the only one who has had their entire family killed off? Think of Haku. What about Kimimaro? You want more names? I can give you an entire list of them. We are ninja and we fight. The Great Wars went on for years and you are far from the only person to experience grief."

Sasuke strained against his bonds, a snarl on his lips. "You've never lost everything. You act like you've come so far, but I know that you've never had a family. Pathetic."

Kakashi took another drink from his glass as he observed his former student. Sasuke had his head raised in defiance, with stiff shoulders, a classic pose of stubbornness and self-righteousness. Sasuke turned his head to the side as he sensed Kakashi lean in closer. Kakashi raised a hand and gave a hard flick at Sasuke's ear.

Sasuke swore. "Dammit, Kakashi!"

"You deserved it. I'm going out of my way, out of my mission and trying to give you honest advice and you act like the same little arrogant turd I saw when you were thirteen. Of all those people who lost their families, do you know what happened to them? Well, do you? Because I've done my fair amount of research on the subject."

"No."

"When there was a mass slaughter of a family line, do you know how many carried on their name to future generations? One."

This information seemed to interest Sasuke. "I don't understand."

"In all of the other families, the survivors self-imploded. Some committed suicide, others had a sense of misplaced martyrdom. There were alcoholics, avengers, and emotionally handicapped hermits. Except for one pair…. my family."

Sasuke frowned. "I know your father grew up in Konoha."

"True," replied Kakashi. "The massacre goes back two generations. Do you want to hear the story or am I wasting my time?"

"I'm listening," replied Sasuke through clenched teeth.

Kakashi took a deep breath and then started his story.

"My family is originally from Lightening Country. The hidden villages had already been established, but were still in its infancy. My ancestors were elite even among the geniuses. There were many favorable traits in my clan, everything short of a kekkei genkai. Some argued the clan was better off because it didn't carry the heavy stigma that a bloodline limit had.

"They were in every branch of the government, and held every possible position in the village. That was our gift, you see. Our chakra was able to adapt to any element. Mastery was easy to attain if you started young enough and there was someone proficient in every element.

"It made them valuable and prominent and most of all, arrogant. It wasn't hard to figure out they were planning a coup- it was in their mannerisms and their strut. So before they could do anything to destroy the young government of Cloud, the word was given out to kill them off in the dead of night."

Kakashi took a drink from a glass of water. He had never spoken of his family's past to anyone and he was surprised to see his hand trembling as he brought the cup to his lips. The truth of his shameful history was a closely guarded secret and he doubted there were a handful of people who knew of it. However, the story was having a desired effect on Sasuke, who was listening in respectful silence.

"In the early dawn hours, they struck and most of them were wiped out before the sun had risen. However, the Raikage could not reconcile with killing off an entire clan, even if it was to protect the village. To ease his conscience he brought the two youngest members of the clan before him. It was a twin boy and girl about the age of seven. They were not genin yet, but they had enough knowledge of jutsus and clan secrets. He gave them a mandate; he would spare their lives but they would have to leave the village and seek out their fortunes elsewhere." Kakashi licked his lips, imagining that cold winter's day in his mind. "Having no family left and betrayed by their country, the twins were escorted out of the village.

"The brother and sister planned for future revenge and sought to make themselves stronger. They journeyed away from Lightning and one day they came across a wagon in a ditch. They found a wealthy man and although they could have stolen his valuable objects, they assisted him from the mud trap. The twins had little use for baubles, having learned that it was a family they craved the most. The man thanked them for their assistance and proceeded to tell them stories of his own family. Finding comfort in his words, the twins escorted the man through his journey until they reached his destination. It was then that they learned their new acquaintance was the daimyo of Fire Country. The Lord welcomed them to his home for their assistance in his travels.

"Grateful for the invitation, they obliged and became guards to the immense Ehime Estate. They were there for several years and during the time, the heir grew fond of the sister and they married. The brother, my grandfather, was dissatisfied with being a guard. Seeing the look in his sister's eyes made him realize he wanted happiness more than revenge. And as an adult he could understand the entitlement that his clan held was precisely the thing that brought about their downfall. So he went to Konoha to carve out his own destiny and to find his family with an oath engraved in his mind and heart, to be loyal to his new family.

"Konoha is my home. It is my family in a way some people will never understand. I will protect them; I will die for them because I live for them. As such, they will care that I'm dead. Can you say the same?"

There was a long silence, broken only by the soft taps of Kasumi's heels as she paced the hallway.

"Find meaning in your life, not your past. You should find a wife and have some kids. I don't want you to be another mark in my statistics."

"I could say the same thing to you, Kakashi," said Sasuke in a soft voice.

"Hmmm... I'm thinking about it. Give me a couple of years and I might be ready to do something about it."

Sasuke squirmed in his chair. "How do I know you aren't lying to me? This story seems too convenient."

"Go see for yourself. Lightning Country still has the remains of the compound just outside Cloud. I've been there myself. It's not much, but you'll know what it is."

There was a heavy knock on the door. Kasumi poked her head in.

"Kashi, it's getting rather late. I think you need to wrap it up soon if you want to depart in the morning."

Kakashi nodded. "Give me a few more minutes." Kasumi shut the door, leaving them alone once more.

"I'm going to let you go. I just have one more thing to ask you, Sasuke…"

Kakashi was interrupted from his memories by a real knock on his door. It was different from Lee's timid knocks that usually came at the dead of night. The map from his hand fluttered onto the floor as he went to check on the visitor. His adrenaline spiked as he opened the door and noticed Kasumi was standing behind Yamato.

"Has he been spotted?"

Yamato gave a grim smile. "He was spotted in a town along Grass earlier in the week. He's probably in the country now. Kasumi warned Naruto already so he is on alert."

Kakashi cursed internally as he slipped his pocket in search of a scroll. "Was it the small village along the mountain line?"

Kasumi's eyes widened. "Yes. How did you know that?"

Kakashi gave a grim smile as he snapped the seal in his pocket. "I'm afraid you're going to have to cancel my meeting with Shizune," he said in response. Kakashi vanished in a poof of smoke, tugged a scroll from his pocket, and transported himself to the border. It was time to face Sasuke.

Chapter Text

Sakura wrinkled her nose as she carried a load of heavy boxes up the stairs. She felt the urge to sneeze grow with every step. Shizune had asked her to bring the files of vaccinations up and plenty of dust had settled in the storage area. Most of the files had not been touched in over a year. Sakura turned around with her back to the door that led to the hallway, attempting to open it with her elbow. The delicately perched boxes threatened to fall from her grasp and she adjusted her angle of attack, bending her knees to adjust her height. She gave the knob another jiggle with her elbow, grunting in annoyance when it didn't work.

The door clicked open and the dim stairwell flooded with light.

"Ah Sakura, there you are," Shizune said as she held the door open. "I was hoping you would be here." She removed the box teetering on top of Sakura's pile, sending a puff of dust into the air. Sakura sneezed immediately, releasing the boxes in her arms to the floor with a thump .

She looked blearily at Shizune, rubbing her nose after another couple of sneezes. "I thought you had an appointment with Kakashi today."

"I did," Shizune replied, as she pushed the boxes to the side of the hallway. "Unfortunately, it looks like the Hokage went out for a mission of his own." Her face grew a little pale and leaned over closer. "Please, don't tell anyone about it. People might have unnecessary concerns about the village's safety. He simply took a little visit to the border." She signaled at one of the nurses down the hall. "Could you make certain that the office by the storage closet has been emptied out? These are the files that need to go in there."

Sakura's mouth grew dry as the nurse disappeared around the corner. "The border? Are you sure?"

"Yes," Shizune replied, as she flicked through the files on her desk. "I wish he had mentioned it before I made my way over there. He was the one who made the appointment after all."

Sakura pressed her dusty hands nervously against her uniform. "Excuse me, Shizune. I need to leave and check something."

Shizune made a slight frown. "Is something wrong?"

"No. NO. It's probably nothing." Sakura gave her a weak smile. "I just need to make sure that I'm not making something up. I mean, um, I would really appreciate it if I could have today off."

"That's fine." Shizune squinted at her. "Are you certain you are feeling alright?"

"Yes," Sakura replied as she gave a hasty wave. "I'll help you with those files tomorrow." She made her way towards the stairs, her body tense. The border? She could only think of one reason why Kakashi would go to the border.

Sakura jogged down the streets, weaving through the shoppers who were sauntering past the shops. Her hand tightened into a fist when she caught a glimpse of Hokage Tower above the rooftops. She made her way to the back of the building, where the Hokage's residence was situated. Peeking out from her hiding place in the shady trees, she saw the coast was clear. It was likely that there was a guard at the front door to shoo away any random passersby, but since the Hokage was gone, the back was deserted.

She raced up the side of the building to the top window where she could see into Kakashi's bedroom. She pressed her hands along the glass surface in a circle, letting her chakra burn at her fingertips. The glass pane fell into her hand and Sakura ducked into the opening to enter the bedroom. Tossing the glass cutting onto his bed, she exited his bedroom. As she passed the kitchen, she noticed the dining room table was covered with maps. Pausing, she glanced at the multicolored lines that traced trade routes and missions. Kakashi had scribbled notes along the paths in his distinctive handwriting. Unable to decipher their meaning with her brief glance, she continued on her way. There were more pressing issues at stake.

The hallways outside of the apartment and in the tower were deserted. The feeling of unease grew more intense as she searched for a familiar face. Finally, she arrived at Kakashi's office and raised her hand and knocked. She was aware of the tension in her shoulders as she stared at the wood grains in front of her.

"Come on," she muttered as she waited for the door to open.

Finally, she heard the knob turned and she peered up to see a porcelain mask.

"I have crucial information regarding the Hokage's condition," she blurted out before the guard could give her a curt dismissal. The ANBU stood up even straighter, an action she would not have thought possible.

"Who's there?" Sakura recognized the faint but stern voice of one of the village elders, his voice sharp with impatience.

The guard did not bother to turn his back and face his speaker, keeping his face straight as he evaluated Sakura. She felt her hand twitch, the urge to curl her fist into his face catching her by surprise. "This woman says she has information regarding the Hokage."

Mutters filled the air, their meaning lost to Sakura's ears. She continued to stare at the blank mask, vexed by his emotionless tone. Once again she was burning with emotion while stagnant mutters and placidity surrounded her. There was anger in her veins. How dare Kakashi leave without assistance? She wondered what would happen if she broke the ANBU's mask with her fist.

"Escort her out of the building," a female voice said. Sakura furrowed her brow as she tried to determine where she had heard it before.

The ANBU titled his head with a slight angle. You heard them.

"Yes," Sakura replied in a cool voice, trying to reflect a collected demeanor that she did not feel. "I'm still not leaving."

"Hold on." The door opened further and she saw Yamato's face from behind the ANBU.

"I have crucial information regarding the Hokage's condition," she repeated, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice. But Yamato knew her too well and her attempt failed. He ushered the guard away and let her in the room.

"So is it true that Kakashi left for the border?" Sakura asked as soon as she stepped into the room. She ignored the crowd of ANBU around her and the elders seated by Kakashi's desk.

"How the hell do you know about that?" Sakura turned to see the kunoichi from Mist. "You don't have the rank for that information."

Sakura ignored Kasumi's question and looked at Yamato. When he didn't deny her question, her heart sank deeper into her stomach. "Why did you let him escape your sight? I thought you were supposed to protect him?" She could feel the stony indignation of the ANBU guards, but ignored them in favor of Yamato.

"The Hokage had prepared a transportation scroll and departed before a plan could be established." Yamato shook his head in disbelief. "We believe that he has been preparing for this event for several months on his own. He is an elite ninja and it's not surprising that he was able to carry this out. You can't place all the blame on the guards." He ran a hand across his hair, disheveling it and accentuating his exhaustion. "It is so unlike the Hokage to rush out without a plan in place. He's rarely so impetuous."

"Indeed," said the elder sitting in his seat. "That's one of the most troubling facts. He was chosen because of his dependability. He is not brash like Uzumaki."

Sakura pressed her hands to her face, squeezing her eyes to stop the tunnel vision beginning to form. A small voice was whispering in her head; one that told her exactly what was going on.

There was a sniff of disdain. "See, that's where I think you're wrong." Kasumi's voice was confident. "I know 'Kashi has a level head. The scroll is proof enough that he had a plan in place. He has some intention; we simply can't see what our next action is to be."

Sakura raised her head to stare at Kasumi in disbelief. It was strange to hear words that were so similar to the thoughts in Sakura's head. Sakura might not have cared much for Kakashi's ex-girlfriend, but Kasumi clearly knew him well enough to look underneath the underneath. Hearing her own thoughts spoken with such blunt confidence made it easier for Sakura to speak up.

Sakura cleared her throat softly, an image of a small girl and a red kite flitting through her mind. "It's a message for me."

"Pardon?" Yamato turned to her, his brow furrowed in surprise.

"I… he… I need to go get him." She could feel the silent stares of the sentinels around her, their disbelieving gazes burning at her back. "That's what the Hokage wants."

Kasumi gave a snort. "And what are you going to do, girlie? Give him a haircut? Kakashi has enough brains to outsmart the Uchiha. And Uzumaki has already been informed of the situation and is anticipating the conflict. The two of them should be fine together. I don't see why you think you are important enough to be there."

The careful hold Sakura held on her emotions snapped with Kasumi's derision. She might not have known how to hold up against sadness or guilt, but anger made her more confident. Sakura took a step towards the older woman and raised her chin.

"You're not the only one in this room who knows Kakashi." Sakura replied in a clear voice. " You are the outsider in this room. And while you might know about Sasuke, Naruto, and Kakashi; you don't know who I am. And that shows you don't know much about this situation at all."

Sakura gave a bitter smile. "Kakashi didn't have to go to the border because Naruto was there, but he went anyway. Kakashi knew I would find out. Those three are the members of my first team; of course I would be interested in any news about them. He left so I would follow him, so I could confront Sasuke. And I know the message is for me. I'm the only one to realize how stupid an action it was, because I am the only one who knows that Kakashi doesn't have the Sharingan anymore."

Kasumi's mouth dropped open in surprise and Yamato's face became tight. Around her, the crowd of ANBU shuffled with unease.

"Why do you make such an accusation?" asked one of the elders.

"Kakashi asked me a few months ago to shut down the Sharingan. Lady Tsunade gathered the medical information I would need before she left. I finished the final phase a few weeks ago. It's permanently dormant now." She picked at a loose thread on the edge of her sleeve. "I told him it was a stupid idea. But you know how he can be, sometimes he just gives you that look and you know that there is nothing you say that would change his mind. You could argue with him all day and all night. Then you would still be on the losing side, without sleep or a voice."

"I do not know how well the Hokage will do in a battle without the Sharingan. It has been years since he had to fight without it." He gave Sakura a steady look. "It would help to have you there if he was injured."

Kasumi looked at Sakura with a shrewd gaze. "I'll take you to the border. I have a jutsu that can get us there in minutes."

Sakura looked at her in astonishment. "Are you certain?"

Kasumi reached into her sleeve, withdrawing a slender blue bottle. "Yes. You had better be worth the extra effort it takes for me to drag you there."

Yamato spoke in her defense. "Sakura wouldn't have come here if she wasn't ready to fight. She pours her heart into everything she does and this situation is no different. I hope you can keep up with her, Kasumi."

Sakura gave a grateful smile to Yamato before stepping forward to her new partner. "Do I need to do anything?"

Kasumi didn't respond; she was too busy taking a drink from the bottle in her hands. A smirk crossed her face when she finished. Kasumi placed a hand onto Sakura's shoulder and they vanished into mist.

~O~

Kakash ran across the wild, yellow fields, heading in Sasuke's direction. He had already met up with Naruto and had sent him the wrong way. Naruto's readiness to fight would be bad in the present situation. Ever since he caught word of Sasuke's attack against Sakura, there had been a few questions. Sakura's confession of Sasuke's bizarre attack morphed his old questions into new ones. Why create a dream world that doesn't exist? Why choose Sakura?

Kakashi had begun to think that Sasuke twisted his friendly advice just to spite him, but he finally had the answers. Unfortunately, it meant that he had to divert Naruto's attention until Sakura arrived. Closure was what she needed, not just for her sake, but for Naruto, for the village, and for the once great clan that held so much promise.

He paused and took another deep whiff of the air, catching an acidic odor. Off in the horizon there was a hill, one that contained a cave shielded by rocks. It was a nice shady hiding place from the bright sun. Kakashi took his time as he made his way over, giving Sasuke plenty of time to sense his approach.

Kakashi stopped when he reached the bottom of the hill and waited.

"I knew you would come here, Kakashi" rasped a gruff voice. It held a quality heard from people whose throats were accustomed to breathing in dust.

Kakashi could see a figure standing in the shadows of the cave. His eye widened slightly in surprise, uncertain if this really was his former student. The silhouette was all wrong, Sasuke's trademark hairstyle had been abandoned and the confident posture was gone. The voice was unfamiliar. But Sasuke had last been seen in a village not too far from here, and Kakashi found it difficult to believe that Sasuke would have left such a prime location. The nearest caves were in Konoha, a two days journey.

"Sasuke," Kakashi said as he reached into his pocket, slowly withdrawing a pair of gloves from his hand. "I hear you've finally poked your head out from the rock you have been hiding in."

"Ever the comedian, Kakashi," Sasuke replied.

"I wasn't joking," Kakashi said as he slipped his hand into his gloves. The leather felt comfortable, and he tightened his hand into a fist. That action was all it took for the thrill of battle to rush through his veins. In an instant, he was aware of the blades of grass under his feet, the dark shadow cast by the rocks, and the faint wind in the air. He would fight the last wielder of the Sharingan, and he would have to do so in a way he had not experienced since he was thirteen, with two eyes and all the chakra in his body.

He took another steady breath.

"I've come here to talk to you about some things. You have caused enough grief to the village. Naruto shouldn't be spending his time out here on the outskirts of border town for the whole year. But he does so because he wants to keep everyone safe from you."

Kakashi saw Sasuke take a step forward. "Naruto was your friend, a person with a deep well of optimism and hope. And now you're turning him into a jaded hermit like yourself. You need to tell him to move on."

Sasuke scoffed from his place in the shadows. "Tch. No mention of battle? You've gone soft, Kakashi. You know, I heard that they made you Hokage. It's only a matter of time before the village crumbles if you are at the head. You don't have what it takes in order to keep the village running. It requires force and a steady hand for guidance which is something you don't have. Your reputation has always been greater than your accomplishments."

Kakashi ignored the insult. "Did you visit the remains of the compound by Lightning like I asked you?"

"I don't take orders from you, Kakashi." Sasuke chuckled darkly as he reached into his pocket. "Did you think you could scare me with your family story and I would do as you ask? Did you think that I care what your opinion of me is? I didn't feel like going to a scavenger hunt, so I didn't go."

"I warned you." Kakashi eyed the kunai that was twirling between Sasuke's fingertips. The sunlight glinted off of the blade and into his eyes with each twist; an unwelcome action he would have been able to ignore with the Sharingan. "I was trying to help you understand-"

Sasuke had had enough of the conversation and flung the kunai at Kakashi's head. Kakashi swerved to the left, taking a few steps back and raised his left hand. Sasuke's weapon met with the metal plate on back of Kakashi's hand, sending vibrations down his left arm. Knowing that Sasuke would counterattack with a spin and another swipe, Kakashi backed away while Sasuke's back was turned.

It was madness trying to counterattack the Sharingan without a definitive plan of attack, he of all people was aware of the ridiculous advantage it gave. Kakashi also knew that one of his toughest opponents had been Gai, who had neutralized the benefits of the Sharingan with an unrelenting taijutsu attack.

Kakashi knew that this was not the type of attack suited for him. He preferred something a little craftier. He rapidly moved his hands, causing four bunshin to appear.

Sasuke paused in his attack, eyeing the four bunshin with amusement. "I can tell which one is you."

Kakashi ignored Sasuke, acutely aware of the different reaction of his chakra. The chakra roared through Kakashi's system in excitement. He hadn't used a significant amount since the Sharingan had been shut down and was unprepared for the reaction. Finally, his body was no longer catering to the eye and was free to respond how it wanted without inhibition. Kakashi knew exactly what he needed to do.

The four bunshin took off, approaching a bemused Sasuke.

Sasuke stayed in position, opting to throw kunai rather than evade. If the situation had not been so grim, Kakashi would have laughed. Sasuke was accustomed to fighting Naruto, who could sacrifice the copies because of his enormous chakra reserves. Kakashi had to be more judicial and as such, had given his clones a sense of self-preservation. They swatted the attack away with their own weapons. Sasuke attempted his own attack and sent a massive fireball to roll across the field. It left a trail as it crossed the dry field, sending out great plumes of smoke in the sky. The clones kept their distance, creating a wall of water to douse the intense flames. Kakashi frowned as he watched the smoke climb up the sky. Hopefully, Naruto wouldn't see it.

"This won't work," replied Sasuke with wild eyes when he noticed he was surrounded by Kakashi's clones. "I have enough ability that I can defeat them all. Don't you understand, Kakashi? I cannot be beaten by any jutsu you know."

Kakashi felt a grim smile cross his lips. "This battle isn't going to be won by showing off your fanciest attack. It is going to be won by whoever has the most skill. Amaterasu requires a high amount of chakra and I can wait it out."

"I heard you took my advice about seeking a family. How are those kids working out for you? " His body tensed as he focused his chakra in his body, causing small bursts of static to dance across his fingertips. Perfect. "I heard that you and Sakura had quite the pair."

There was a long silence as the two stared at each other. Sasuke's body language had changed once more. Gone was the consummate soldier with a perfect stance and cool emotions. Kakashi could see the fury roiling off of Sasuke's body in a way that reminded him of an angry drunk. Sasuke had not been prepared for the question.

"She told you?" Sasuke growled.

"Yes, she told me. She told me about your use of Tsukuyomi and the girl with the kite. You were so close to having it all, Sasuke. I had hoped that your family would have been real rather than fantasy." He dipped his hand in his pocket, his fingers sliding across the loops on the top of each kunai.

"Sakura wasn't supposed to tell you. She wasn't supposed to tell anyone. They were ours to know, ours to preserve. You can't hurt anything that isn't real, and there they would have been safe." Sasuke's face twisted with anger as he crept forward.

Kakashi noted Sasuke's rambling meant he was sufficiently distracted and was also ignoring the bunshin surrounding him. Kakashi's hand came in contact with a kunai that was shorter than the others. He slipped it out of his pocket. Across the plain, his clones followed suit.

"They weren't real, Sasuke. They were delusions of your imagination and you have nothing to show for it. You're still alone, Sakura was hurt, and Naruto lost his faith in you. After every confrontation, those two still held on to some hope that you would be able to find a place to call home. They wavered a little bit, especially with the confrontation with Madara becoming worse. But when the conflict was over they did not try to seek you out. But you stayed away from everyone and that killed you." Kakashi held the kunai in his hand as he watched Sasuke tremble. Any second now…

"I'm not dead yet," Sasuke said as he advanced to Kakashi. With Sasuke's attention gone from them, the bunshi began to make hand signs channeling their existence into a justsu. They poofed into a cloud of smoke as their energy was absorbed into the kunai that they had shoved deep into the earth. Kakashi raised his hands to make the final sign, taking a leap back from the weapon at his feet.

Sasuke was an arm's length away, his katana ready to slice Kakashi's body in half when the world exploded.

~O~

Sakura landed with a thud on a yellowed field, sprawled on the earth in the most ungraceful manner. Swear words danced across her lips as she clutched her head in agony. Her body had been unprepared for the unusual method of travel.

"What the hell was that?"

"Air travel," replied Kasumi in a clipped tone. "I converted our bodies into alcohol molecules and brought us here. Now stand up. You're embarrassing me."

Sakura scowled as she rose from the ground. "Embarrassing you? There's no one around." She scanned her surroundings to see a field of yellowed grass. She could see smoke floating on the horizon, a sign of a nearby village.

"They're nearby, I can feel them both."

"Kakashi and Sasuke?" Sakura felt her heart leap into her throat. "What about Naruto?"

Kasumi took another sip of the flask at her hip. "He's still a ways off, but approaching this way. We should wait for him, I'm certain that he would-"

Kasumi paused as the noise of a faint blast traveled across the field. In the distance, Sakura could see a cloud of dirt begin to rise. Not even glancing at Kasumi, Sakura took off in that direction.

She heard Kasumi yell her name, but didn't stop to look back. Sakura could feel the adrenaline coursing through her body as she raced across the field. She noticed that Kasumi had stayed behind; whether it was to wait for Naruto, or fear, she didn't know.

It had been a long time since Sakura had felt so scared of going into battle. Tsunade had taught her how to trust in her own abilities, Naruto had taught her perseverance, and Kakashi had taught her how to trust in others. All of those things she had learned were useless right now because she was running to Sasuke.

He always knew how to make her feel like a fool.

She ran. Sakura regretted every step she took towards the blast. Her fear of meeting Sasuke again was the reason she had stopped active duty, but right now she was drawn in his direction. And this time, a stitch wasn't forming on her side and she wasn't out of breath. She had picked up her training ever since that unfortunate incident with the caravan robbers. But fear was crawling in every inch of her body, her mind imagining the worst. Kakashi lying facedown on the ground, his hair matted with blood. Sasuke standing over him with an arrogant smirk and waiting for her….

Sakura wasn't aware that her fear only made her run faster.

A peculiar smell filled the area as she drew close, a mix of scents she couldn't place. She sucked in a breath as she saw a lone figure standing in the field. She slowed down. A wave of relief rushed over her.

"I'm glad you made it, Sakura." As far as Sakura could tell, Kakashi hadn't even fought Sasuke. The only sign was a small layer of dirt that covered him.

"Where is he? What happened?" She pointed at the large crater in the ground inches away from his feet.

Kakashi scratched his cheek with a finger. "I tried a new jutsu and it worked better than I thought. Sasuke had to retreat to his cave."

Sakura's mouth dropped open. "What? You…. I don't…. I came here to help you !" She raised her hands, the urge to give Kakashi a good shake with his vest. "I hitched a ride with your ex-girlfriend, who I don't even like , because I thought you were in trouble."

"I'm touched by your concern, Sakura." Kakashi placed a gloved hand to his chest. "But I was only trying to buy some time until you arrived." He gave her a serious look. "It's time to face your demon."

"You're sending me in there?" Sakura took a step back in surprise. She shouldn't have been so surprised.

"Yes, but it's not like you think. Physically, Sasuke's in no shape to attack you, what little energy he had was spent on me. You don't even have to talk to him to find the answers you seek."

Sakura thought Kakashi was insane. But he was just standing there, hands in his pockets as the wind ruffled his hair. If there was anything to fear he would have been more on edge. The sight reminded her of easy times when they took ridiculous missions to Rice Country just so she could buy their premium chocolates. She found comfort enough in that memory to turn around and take that first step towards the cave.

Kakashi watched her climb up the hill with apprehension. He didn't know precisely what would be said, but he did all he could do. The rest was up to Sakura. Kakashi looked at the crater of earth that surrounded him as he tucked his hands in his pockets. Now all that was left for him to do was wait for the two of them to exit the cave.

Popping his neck, he noticed Naruto's presence approaching. Kakashi ran towards Naruto to speak with him.

"Naruto, I need you to stay here." But Naruto made no motion to stop, and appeared downright angry. Apparently, he wasn't pleased about Kakashi's misdirection. "Dammit," Kakashi muttered as he saw Naruto race past him. If he killed Sasuke before Sakura discovered the truth she would never truly recover.

Kakashi raised his hands, his fingertips contorting into several hand signals. There was a flash of light and Naruto stopped in his tracks, falling face down to the ground.

"I'm afraid I can't let you interfere with this." Kakashi drew himself closer along the periphery of the box. "It's the best for all of you." He hated the words even as they came out of his mouth, knowing he was acting like the type of teacher he had never been. But in the case of these three, experience was everything.

"What…utsu?" Naruto struggled to speak, his mouth pressed down against the grass.

Kakashi glanced to the left to see Kasumi approaching in the distance. "I put kunai in the ground that act as a focus point in order to magnetically charge the area inside of it, creating a higher gravity force. I developed this jutsu a long time ago, but it requires a steady stream of chakra and it was pointless to use with the Sharingan sucking most of my reserves dry." He raised a hand and tapped the barrier in front of him, causing sparks to ricochet. "I'm afraid it still needs a bit of work. There's too much energy wasted in the walls."

He raised a hand in greeting at Kasumi. "Yo."

Kasumi looked down at Naruto's prostrate form, as he writhed against the grass. "You and your fetish with grass."

Kakashi chuckled as he heard Naruto begin to emit muffled sounds of indignation. He turned to Kasumi and gave a solemn nod. "Thank you for bringing Sakura here."

Kasumi gave a wan smile. "What else could I do, especially since I knew that part of your plan meant she was an integral part of your plan." She took a gulp of a blue bottle that was tucked in a sash around her waist. "Still, I don't see what a girl like her can do in order to defeat Uchiha."

Kakashi sighed. "She's not supposed to defeat Sasuke."

"Oh?" Kasumi raised an eyebrow in astonishment. From the corner of his eye, he could see that Naruto's struggles had diminished.

"No," said Kakashi as he looked at the darkened cave. "She's supposed to cure him."

~O~

Sakura stood at the entrance, squinting into the darkness. She couldn't see him, but she could hear his ragged breath as he approached. Logically, she knew it was insanity to be entering alone with an S-ranked ninja at her feet. But Kakashi wasn't concerned for her, and she trusted him.

Sasuke was pressed against the back wall and made no movement towards her. She saw a scatter of supplies by his feet, a sleeping bag, some food, and ashes where he lit a fire. He had been there for a while, possibly a week.

"Sasuke," Sakura said as she crept forward. "I have to-"

She snapped her mouth shut as a bitter taste filled her mouth and nose. She hadn't noticed the smell in the field; perhaps the wind had carried it away. Trapped in this tiny cave, there was no way to ignore the heady scent. Why was Sasuke not saying anything about it? Unless it was coming from him?

Wrinkling her nose, she came closer, ignoring the odor to focus on Sasuke.

"You told Kakashi about the children," he rasped.

Sakura felt her heart begin to thump faster in her chest, and ignored her apprehension. She had been terrified of Sasuke before, terrified of what he had done, and her heart was broken by his beautiful lies. But all of that had faded away in the background. There was something very wrong about this whole situation.

Sasuke was shaking.

It was not a mild tremble that could only be caught by sharp eyes. Even though he was sitting down, his arms and legs were moving against their own volition. This was the sort of motion that was caused by fatigue, when the body attempted to continue despite the lack of energy. Sakura's eyes widened. She wasn't looking at a S-ranked ninja; she was looking at a very sick person. The medic in her took over her fear and she knelt down in front of him.

"Sasuke," she said. "You don't look well." Sakura raised a hand to press against his forehead, and was stopped when he put a tight hold on her wrist. Then she looked into his eyes.

The world spun and twirled into a kaleidoscope of color until she was presented the vision of a familiar home. Her heart leapt at the sight of a red kite that was flying in the sky a short distance away. Sakura tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her hand pausing as she noticed the smooth skin behind her ear. The scar was gone, and this was nothing but an illusion.

"Momma?"

Sakura spun and looked down. Ikuye was looking up at her. She was a small girl with wide, green eyes and nine years of age that she had not earned.

"Could you help me with my homework? We're learning how to make flower arrangements and I don't know anything about them. Maybe I could make one for daddy." She gave a timid smile as she presented Sakura with a grubby handful of wild flowers. Some of them still had the roots attached.

Sakura choked back a sob at the familiar sight. This was only a genjutsu, a fact punctuated by an acrid taste that filled her mouth. Sasuke wasn't strong enough to hide the odor. Kneeling in front of her daughter, she brushed at a strand of black hair on her daughter's forehead.

"I'm so sorry," Sakura whispered. And with that, she gathered her chakra and pushed the chakra into Ikuye's body. She felt the energy retaliate in a familiar way. It was impossible to break the genjutsu by conventional means, but this was the same fight she had with Kakashi's eye.

Sasuke's chakra rebelled against hers, but she maintained her control. She saw the genjutsu around her begin to fade, the sour odor returning to her nose. Pulling all of her strength together, she concentrated and gave her chakra a strong shove.

Sasuke's chakra pathway yielded to her control and the genjutsu shattered. Sakura felt Sasuke's warm blood against her thumbs as he slumped to the ground.

Sakura removed her hands from his head and looked at his still form. She noticed the swelling around his knuckles that resembled an advanced stage of arthritis. A whisper left her lips as she remembered the hundreds of vials stored inside of her hospital office.

"Sasuke, you should have gotten a vaccination."

Chapter Text

Dusk had begun to fall and Sakura was still in the cave. Naruto would make noises of frustration every few minutes as he struggled against Kakashi's jutsu. For all of his effort, the only thing Naruto managed to accomplish was to flop over on his back.

"Let me out, Kakashi."

"If I let you out, will you stay here?"

There was a pause. "Yes."

Kakashi smiled down at him. "Nice try. Try to sound more sincere next time."

Naruto gave a strangled yell. "Aww… come on! All I want-"

" Quiet." Kakashi knew that Naruto's heart was in the right place, but he didn't feel like arguing at the moment. If there was any sound indicating that something had gone wrong; he wanted to hear it. Things were taking longer than he anticipated and the situation already had him on edge. Perhaps he was wrong to send her there alone?

Kakashi glanced at Kasumi, who was dozing on a rock. "Do you think we should go in?"

She opened up her eyes. "What?" She leaned forward and gave her back a pop.

"Has it been too long?" Kakashi wished he could only be so relaxed.

"Give Pinky a few more minutes and if she doesn't come out I'll check up on her." Kasumi frowned as she looked at the cave. "How hard could it be to neuter Uchiha? It's not like he's in the greatest of health."

"Don't call her that." Kakashi regretted the irritation in his voice when Kasumi gave him a glare.

"What is with you today? It's not like I did anything wrong. All I did was bring that girl over here for you, despite my better judgment. And I'm not one of your ninja, so don't act like I'm obligated to follow you."

She was right, of course. It was only his emotions that were causing him to be out of character. Anything he could say in his defense would only make her angrier. So Kakashi kept his mouth shut and continued to wait.

A minute later, he heard footsteps. They were too heavy to be Sakura's, but also too steady to be Sasuke's. He was uncertain of who would emerge into the dim light. He released the jutsu holding Naruto, the energy crackling in the air like a firework.

Kasumi swore as Sakura stepped through, carrying Sasuke's unconscious form on her back. "What the hell is she doing? Doesn't she know that Uchiha is wanted by every nation? If anyone sees us assisting him, we'll be in for war."

"I don't think that there's anyone else nearby," said Naruto as he stood up. "The nearest village doesn't have a road that goes this direction. I tried to rebuild the town closer to the river, but the villagers refused. They said this place is only used for war and is full of restless spirits." Naruto waved frantically at Sakura. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Sakura jumped off the final rock and landed in the field. "We need to take Sasuke back to Konoha." Kakashi glanced at Kasumi in time to see her angry face.

"What happened?" Naruto wrung his hands. "And why are Sasuke's eyes bandaged?"

"Naruto…" Sakura's voice was weary as she placed Sasuke down. "I really, really, don't want to talk about this right now."

Naruto's face fell in disappointment, but Kasumi was not so forgiving. "I'm afraid you don't have a choice. He attacked our Academy and I want answers. Someone like him doesn't deserve treatment."

It was difficult to make out Sakura's face in the falling light. "I'm a medic, this is what I do."

"You must be a pretty pathetic one."

Naruto gave a snort of laughter, but had the presence of mind to stay out of the fight between the two women.

Sakura responded in a calm voice. "Sasuke did some horrible things, but he's really, really sick. He can't hurt anyone now. I work in Konoha's medical research facility and I know that with a few tests there is a possibility that he can help thousands more than he ever hurt."

Kasumi scoffed. "It's not a risk I'm willing to take."

Kakashi thought it had gone on long enough. "Sakura, is this absolutely necessary?" He wasn't keen on the idea of Sasuke back in the village, harmless or not.

"Yes."

Kakashi could say little of her intentions and the situation made him uneasy. But Sakura had displayed a level of trust in him when she went to face Sasuke. He had to support her now or it would be a betrayal of whatever relationship they had. "Kasumi, you need to take all of us back."

" What?" Kasumi had gone from irritated to furious. "I expect that sort of behavior from her, but not from you. If you want to take him back, you'll have to do it on your own. I have no reason to assist you."

" Kasumi…" Kakashi was dangerously close to begging. But he didn't want to spend the entirety of the evening travelling back to Konoha. "Please, as a favor."

She looked at him with an inscrutable expression. "Fine, but you owe me answers. I'm not going back to Mist empty-handed, and I get to raise all the hell I want until I have them." She grabbed Naruto by the sleeve. "Get over here."

Sakura placed Sasuke over her shoulder and held out her arm so Kasumi could grab hold and Kakashi placed a hand on Kasumi's shoulder. Kakashi immediately regretted his request as Kasumi activated the jutsu. It was one thing to have a jutsu that made you uncomfortable, quite another to not have any control of it. Most jutsus that altered the physical body lasted for seconds, but this one depended on how far one needed to go. Travelling from the border to Konoha was an agonizing and lengthy experience when the body was bent and twisted into little more than air molecules.

The troop regained physical form outside of the village walls. Kakashi gave a sigh of relief as they landed, staying on his knees to regain his equilibrium. Naruto landed with a swear on his lips, freeing himself quickly from Kasumi's grasp. He continued to glare at her even as he helped Sakura up.

"Hokage-sama." Five ANBU appeared out of the woods to stand before them. "What are your orders?"

Kakashi was relieved that they had been the first to arrive. He didn't need rumors spreading in the village until he had control of the situation. "I need you to take Uchiha to the basement medical facility, you know the one. Sakura, you are to do your tests as quickly as possible. I need you to report the situation back to me in forty-eight hours, sooner if possible. One of you needs to stay in the room with Uchiha at all times until I say otherwise. Naruto, you are to be stationed outside of the room." Kakashi pinched at the bridge of his nose. The method of travel had given him a headache. It was a good thing he wasn't susceptible to vertigo.

"Yes, Hokage-sama." The ANBU vanished, taking Sasuke with them.

Sakura turned to Kakashi. "I don't want them in my room when I do the tests, Kakashi. They might get in the way."

Oh yes, the headache was definitely growing. "Then you will have to deal with it. I'm not changing my mind on this." She frowned at him.

"Come on, Sakura." Naruto tugged at Sakura's arm. "We should get going."

Kakashi watched his old team go, leaving him with Kasumi. He wanted to know what happened in that cave, but Sakura seemed reluctant to speak of it. Hopefully she would be able to answer his questions soon.

"Are you coming with me?" he asked Kasumi. She nodded and they made their way to Hokage Tower. Upon arrival, he saw the light of his office peeking out from beneath the door. He opened the door to see a small crowd of people inside.

"There you are!" One of the village elder's fussed in his chair. "We demand an explanation for your behavior. It's not proper for a Hokage to go gallivanting about without informing the Council or your ANBU guards." Kakashi could almost hear Kasumi smirk behind him.

"I'll have a full report in seventy-two hours," he said. "For now, I want you out of my office."

Tenzou was one of the first to follow his order. Kakashi knew that he was probably full of questions, and was grateful that his old friend was silent. Kakashi didn't have the full story right now anyway. The ANBU followed Tenzou's lead and finally, the village leaders. They were not so obedient, clearly displeased by being left in the dark.

"The office has certainly gone to his head," someone muttered.

Kakashi closed the door with a firm snap, leaving him alone with Kasumi. The headache that had been threatening him eased, but he turned off the light anyway. It was good to be back. The earlier rush of adrenalin had faded, leaving behind a wave of relief at his familiar surroundings. He gave a wry smile at the turn of events. He never would have thought that he would enjoy an office. The only light in the room came from the sconces that shined tiny spotlights on the glass figurines that lined his back wall. The large tree was the brightest, reflecting borrowed light from the prominent location Sakura had placed it.

"What a nightmare," he muttered as sat down in a chair and looked out the glass window. He could see that Konoha's street vendors had lit the lanterns. Kasumi withdrew her omnipresent blue bottle and presented it before him, her fingers shaking the bottle in invitation. He took it with hesitance, raising the small bottle to his lips and took a sip. His tongue went numb as soon as the liquid touched his mouth, the alcohol searing up his neck. He gave a small cough.

Kasumi took a seat across from him, her left foot tapping against the floorboards. "I don't understand why it was so important to bring Uchiha back. He won't make it."

"You don't know that. Sakura may be able to heal him." Kakashi looked at the bottle in his hand. It was a small little thing, but it packed a hell of a punch. "I've seen her do some amazing feats through sheer stubbornness…" He drifted off, aware that the alcohol was already loosening his tongue.

"Please, don't act so dense. There was no way you could miss that smell rolling off of Uchiha. I have no idea how he was even standing up. I've smelled week-old corpses that were better. The only way she would be able to save him is if she practiced kinjutsu. And I know you won't allow that." She removed the bottle from his hand and placed the stopper on it. "So…"

Kakashi looked up at Kasumi. Her lips were pursed, a look of consternation on her face. Maybe if he had his full mental capabilities, he would take a stab in the dark at her thoughts. But right now, he felt tired and old. He just wanted her to get to the point. "So?"

"What's so special about Pinky?" It was clear that this question had been brewing for some time.

Kakashi shrugged, not wanting to get into specifics. But his traitorous mind remembered that sparkle in Sakura's eyes when she teased him. He remembered how steady her hands were as she performed the delicate surgery on his eye, the only reassurance as the pressure grew in his chakra pathways. How she was unable to contain her fierce joy when she succeeded. That glance she gave him as she vanished in the cave with Sasuke, one that reflected her unwavering trust in him. And then there was the thin scar hidden behind her ear that represented a world of heartache.

"Nothing. Maybe everything." He blinked, giving himself a moment to clear his head. "I'm not even certain anymore."

"Oh." The room grew quiet. Kakashi heard her shift in her chair. "It's like that."

"Yes." He continued to look out the window, giving Kasumi a moment to gain her composure.

"We've known each other for years. I always thought that we… Did I do something wrong?"

"No." Kakashi looked at her in surprise. She wasn't crying, but he could see that she was upset. Kasumi looked softer somehow, as if the hard edges of her well-maintained exterior had been worn away. It was an astonishing change. He had justified his pursuit of Sakura several times before, to Tsunade, Tomio, and Ms. Tokushima. Somewhere in time, the logical reasons had drifted away into more personal ones. And now that he was faced with a person that had something to lose from his actions, Kakashi didn't know how to explain it. He tried to think of something to say other than the repetitive , "It's not you, it's me." Kasumi deserved more than that. But how could he explain that Sakura had wriggled into his life in an unexpected way, so that even a glass tree held meaning?

"We can't change our natures," he began. "You hated me the moment you met me, but somehow we managed to twist our way into each other's lives and trick ourselves into thinking we could work. And every time it falls apart because one of us makes a comment that digs a little too deep. It's a game; one that I loved to play, but we can't do it forever. I didn't know you cared that much."

"I see." She twiddled with the blue bottle in her hand. "Maybe a part of it is my fault. The first time with you was such a thrill for me. Water and Fire together! But you didn't treat it like that, and I thought that maybe you were using me. Later I thought you were bored with me; you always seemed to have your mind on other things. I hated that, so I would push to get a response from you. It didn't matter what kind it was. And I always felt so good when you left, but later I would regret my words, our words. Maybe if I had been honest…" Kasumi sighed. "The line between happiness and sadness was so hard to see with you."

She stood up from her seat, the legs scraping against the floor; such a loud noise after so much silence. "I need to get back home and tell the Mizukage to await your letter. Take care, Kakashi." Kasumi gave a tepid smile, taking the blue bottle and the possibility of a different future with her.

Kakashi thought, as she shut the door, if she had said things like that more often, he might have paid more attention to her.

~O~

The steady hum of machinery was the only noise in the room. An ANBU guard stood in the corner, a silent observer, a few feet away from where Sasuke lay in bed. Sakura opened up the file she had brought in with her, hoping that the results had changed as she had travelled down the hallway. The page was filled with the same bleak results. Sakura placed the file on the table next to his bed. He didn't move as the air hit his face, but she knew he was awake.

Sakura glanced at the guard in the corner once more. She wished he wasn't there to witness this private moment, but there was nothing she could do about it. Kakashi had ordered the guard into the room and he had used that voice. She suspected that she was lucky to get Sasuke in the testing facility at all.

Sakura pulled up a chair that was pushed against the wall. The seat cushion wasn't very comfortable. Most of the people in this building were criminals, or ninja that came back from a horrific mission that called for a little seclusion before being returned to village life. The chair was a cast-off piece from the hospital, well-worn from years of use. Sakura rubbed her thumb along a tear at the seat where the stitching had frayed away and watched Sasuke.

The ANBU behind her shuffled a foot and Sakura was mindful of her audience. "I know you're awake."

He made no movement in response, but Sakura wasn't surprised. He had to be disoriented. Taking a breath to steady her nerves, she placed her hand in his. He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze, an action so familiar and foreign Sakura thought she would faint.

"Where am I?" Sasuke's voice was unsure and raspy.

Sakura reached for the glass of water by the nightstand and raised the straw to his lips. He took a greedy suck from the straw, emptying the glass until the suction echoed. It was a childish action.

Sakura filled it again and took her own sip from the glass. "You were brought to a secure location under Konoha."

Sasuke had raised a hand to his face, picking at the bandages that were wrapped around his eyes. "What happened?"

Sakura swallowed, struggling against the lump in her throat. She could do this . "You attacked me with Amaterasu. You were ill and the jutsu was weak. I was able to break it by adapting some of my medical training. The pressure I had to exert in order to break the jutsu caused damage to your optic nerves and most of your eye." She was relieved to notice that her voice was cool, crisp, professional, but with a hint of warmth.

"You took away my eyes?" He spoke with a weary tone that left no room for indignation.

"You're taking the news very well," she responded as she glanced at the IV. Perhaps it was the drugs.

"It's strange. I don't feel…. I feel strange."

She stared at his bandaged face. Sasuke's lips were barely moving as he spoke. There were so many things she needed to tell him and so very little time. She turned her head to the ANBU guard standing in the corner of the room. She didn't want him here, a silent witness to something that was such a personal matter to Team Seven. She was barely holding on as it was.

Team Seven . She felt a bittersweet feeling rise in her. If she had been told of all the things that would happen to her at the age of twelve, she would never have become a kunoichi. The Academy had drilled rules and protocols in her head, and she thought she understood what it meant to be a ninja. But all those silly lessons had failed to teach her about the grey matters of morality, loyalty, and justice. Here she was sitting next to one of the most wanted criminals in the world. He was her former teammate, her imaginary lover, her injured patient.

Her dying friend.

Sakura took a sip from the glass of water before proceeding. "Have you heard of the Agape virus?'

Sasuke frowned. "I don't….No."

"It's something that only came into existence a few years ago. There was that member of Atkatsuki who died… you know, the plant one."

"Zetsu?"

"Yes, him. After he was killed, his body released the toxins into Iron Country. The nearest town where his body had been dumped ended up with the beginning stages of the plague. The village was located along a major cargo road and the virus spread quickly. At first there wasn't too much cause for alarm, but as time passed medics and doctors realized what a threat it was. In its five years of existence, it has gone from non-existence to the most dangerous threat in the ninja world. The virus is derived from a plant mutation, so it goes in a dormant state that other illnesses do not. This fortunate dormancy period is the only reason we have not lost a quarter of the population."

Sasuke mulled the information over. "Are you saying I have it?"

She could do this. "Sasuke, you've had the virus for two years. The symptoms upon infection are mild and are often misconstrued for something less dangerous. Some people mistake it for a normal cold and assume they have gotten better. Slowly, the virus begins to make its way through the body's complicated systems. It begins to aim for motor functions, entering the brain. Secondary warning signs include hallucinations and drastic changes in personality. I take it you suffered from light sensitivity. It looks like you have been living in that cave for months."

She felt her eyes sting as she held Sasuke's hand. She had cried enough for him already and knew that tears wouldn't fall for him anymore. It was a pity, because this time he deserved it.

"I wondered what I had done to cause you to attack me. I obsessed over it, pitied myself for it. I hated you so much , Sasuke." Sakura lowered her head to stare at her lap. "It turns out that it was just a symptom for an illness that I've specialized in treating, and didn't catch it."

"It makes so much sense now. The medical community worked together to spread the news. We made villages tack up fliers and made announcements about how dangerous it was. We made tests for it and sent our medics to the smallest of towns to keep the virus at bay. But you were a wanted criminal and I guess you didn't hear the news."

Sasuke smiled. "It's fortunate that you figured it out. I'm in good hands now with you. I'll be fine in no time." He gave her fingers another soft squeeze. Sakura clenched her teeth. He had a way of making her feel so out of control.

"It's not that simple. The Agape virus is different because of its origin. The reason every village in every country is so watchful is because it's a ninja killer. It specifically aims for the system with the most complexity. It targets the nervous system in civilians, but for ninja it goes for the chakra."

"Most people are infected in Autumn and begin to show serious signs during the Spring. Those who don't get immediate treatment develop swollen knuckles and tremors. In every case that I have studied, the infected who do not receive treatment are dead within six months. It never occurred to me that you were sick from the same virus since you lived longer than that. But as far as I can tell, you were infected two years ago."

"When I figured out what was wrong, I had to find out what was different that let you survive.

"You tested me like a lab rat?" Sasuke said in a faint, but indignant voice.

"Yes," Sakura replied, glancing at the file on the bed stand. "It turns out that the Sharingan is a natural defense against the virus. That's why you were able to last so long despite any medical treatment."

"I learned enough medicine from Orochimaru to take care of myself. I didn't need a medic."

"You're fine against colds and small injuries. But this virus didn't even exist when he was alive. It wreaked havoc and invaded every major organ of your body. The only reason you are still alive is because the virus stayed dormant. The Sharingan left the virus starved for a decent chakra source." Sakura took another sip of water. "I'm afraid that's not a problem anymore."

"I gave you a full blood transfusion when you arrived. That flushed out your system a little bit. It's probably why you don't feel so bad. But it won't take long for the virus to take hold again." Sakura was grateful for the humming machinery. Without it, the silence in the room would have been unbearable.

Sasuke's thumb brushed along the back of her hand. His touch was cool from poor circulation. "How long do I have?"

"Days, maybe a week. There's nothing to stop the virus from feeding on your chakra."

"I'm sorry I hurt you. I just want to… I thought you could have made me happy."

Sakura clenched her teeth to stop the sob that was threatening to rise. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the ANBU squirm.

"Can I be buried in the cemetery with my family?" There was a strange neediness in Sasuke's voice.

Sakura gave a sad smile. "You have to be cremated. There is a risk of contamination if you're buried."

"There is a tree on the east side. Ikuye's kite would get tangled in the branches and I had to climb up to get it. It's one of my favorite places. Maybe there?"

She gave his hand a squeeze. "Of course," she lied. Sakura hadn't the heart to tell Sasuke that the tree didn't exist; it was just another lie like her children. The virus had spread so deep in his brain that Sasuke could not longer tell the difference between what was real and his own imagination. He'd probably be unconscious in two days.

She had little more to say to him, so she held his hand.

It was a few minutes before Sasuke spoke. "I never thought he would do it."

Sakura had no idea what he was talking about. "What?"

"Kakashi." Sasuke made a weak effort to sit up, but abandoned the attempt when Sakura's grip tightened. "I saw him in some crappy little village a couple of years ago and he asked me about turning off the Sharingan. I explained the method to him, but I never thought he would go through with it." He gave a soft laugh that morphed into a raspy cough. "That's the reason he had a new jutsu prepared, isn't it? It didn't even cross my mind to expect something new from him."

"You told him how to turn off the Sharingan?" Her voice cracked, the professionalism finally crumbling.

"Yes. I never thought he would do it. Who throws away that sort of power?"

"I don't know." Sakura didn't even know what to think anymore. Had Kakashi mentioned seeing Sasuke during his travels? Why didn't he mention it during all that time she was working on his eye? Sakura glanced at the file sitting on the table. She was supposed to give Kakashi a report soon anyway.

"I'll be back in a few hours, Sasuke." She tucked the file under her arm and went to the door. Naruto was leaning against the wall; his face hopeful as she stepped out into the hallway. She shook her head and his face fell.

Naruto had the same eyes as an adult that he had as a child; ones filled with disappointment and stubborn determination. "How… what can I do?"

Sakura felt like she was a preteen again, despite the lab coat. "Sasuke has a few days. He's awake right now."

"Oh." Naruto fidgeted with the sleeve of his jacket. "I guess I'll go in."

"I have to go deliver my report to Kakashi." Sakura pointed at the report under her arm. "Can you tell the ANBU guard that I'm going to run a couple of tests on him tomorrow? I'm certain he wasn't infected, but it doesn't hurt to take precautions."

Naruto nodded. "Sakura?"

"Yes?"

"You know I love you, right?"

Sakura closed her eyes in order to regain her composure. The past few hours had drained her and she felt like she was on the verge of another breakdown. She thought she had done an admirable job in keeping it together, but apparently Naruto had seen the exhaustion on her face. Why else would he give her such a random confession? She was lucky to have him as a friend.

"I know, Naruto." She opened her eyes and gave him a timid smile. He returned it before vanishing into Sasuke's room.

Sakura sighed and continued down the hallway. She emerged from the underground bunker to see it was dark outside. Glancing at her watch, Sakura realized she had spent over a day down there. She wasn't even certain if Kakashi was awake. Glancing at the file in her hand, she decided to go anyway.

One of the ANBU guards at the door gave a nod as she approached and opened the door. At least she didn't have to argue in order to get in. Pausing for a minute, she summoned her courage and gave a polite knock.

Kakashi opened the door in his pajamas, the black cloth still wrapped around his eye. In the soft light, it was impossible to tell how old he was. The small wrinkles along the corners of his eyes that betrayed his age were hidden. He towered over her even though he was slouching. It made her feel small and young; Sakura was reminded that he was among the best ninja even before she was born.

What was she doing here?

It was ridiculous that she was standing before him. He had asked for a report, but there was no reason for her to deliver it in the middle of the night. He had perched in a tree and watched over her as she practiced the most basic of ninja skills. Now he was her Hokage and one of the most respected people in the world. She barged into Kakashi's home in the middle of the night, and he let her.

Kakashi moved closer to her and she could see the woven threads of his printed pajamas. He plucked the file in her hands and said, "Was he infected by the Agape virus?" .

"You knew?" His pajamas were decorated with tiny shuriken that could be mistaken for flower petals from a distance. Sakura had not known he owned such a pair of frivolous clothing. Sakura shouldn't know. It was indecent.

Kakashi cleared his throat, moving away from her towards the dining table. Sakura entered the room and closed the door. "I suspected it when I was looking over past route maps for the vaccinations. I realized that I encountered Sasuke in a village that had a strong outbreak. Three members of my team were infected, but we had travelled so many different locations, there was no way we could tell where it was caught. I'm not an expert on it."

Sakura paced the room in order to burn the nervous energy inside of her. "But I am. Why didn't I see it?"

"The last time I saw him, I advised him he should go to the Lightning Country to do a little bit of soul searching. I hoped that he would find a bit of peace. If he had followed my advice, he would have been fine. That area didn't suffer from an outbreak. But Sasuke was too determined to be alone and that cost him his life."

Sakura kept her eyes glued to a coffee table a few feet away, his words washing over her. The injustice of it all felt like a slap in the face. The anger and questions had finally been answered, but she could do little about it. Sakura didn't feel happy and there wasn't any peace in the answers. There was only pity and an abundance of self-loathing.

She moved to the door. "I should get going. I'm sure you want some rest."

Kakashi grabbed her wrist as she turned. "There's something else on your mind." His thumb brushed along the pulse of her wrist and it made her head spin.

"I…. no," she stuttered.

Kakashi didn't buy it. "You're shaking."

He was too close to her and she caught a whiff of soap and aftershave. Sakura found herself stepping across that personal boundary again. "Sasuke… he said you asked him how to turn off the Sharingan." Kakashi had to know that her heart was pounding in her chest; his thumb had not moved from her wrist. "You already knew how to turn it off on your own. So why did you ask for my help?"

"Lady Tsuande told me that you accepted the marriage proposal because you needed an escape. I wanted you to find yourself. I planned on shutting off the Sharingan when I didn't need it anymore, but this seemed like a better idea."

"But why?" Sakura raised her hand to slide under the strip of black cloth around his eye, tired of lies and evasion. "You kept it a secret so it doesn't cause a panic. Sasuke was being a lunatic. You could have waited." She tugged at his collar and made eye contact with him. She waited for his response, certain that he could feel the electricity in the air.

"I had nine months before you were going to go off and get married," he ground out. "Nine months to show you that I wasn't lying. I know you. I knew you would never be happy in his world when you belong in mine."

"You don't know that," she whispered as she leaned in closer. "I could have moved on to a new life."

"You didn't want a new life. You wanted to be happy. My eye was a small price to pay to show you." He spoke softly, but he was close enough that Sakura could feel the vibrations in his chest. "You enjoy healing people and you smile when the earth smashes under your fist. I may not know every tick and quirk, but I know that much. And I knew nobility would make you restless. The Sharingan was a challenge to show you were a kunoichi and you loved being one."

Sakura could feel something crumbling inside of her; she just wasn't sure what. "I didn't ask you to do that. Why did you think you had to do that?"

Kakashi gave a soft laugh. "What makes you think it was about you?" He raised a hand to cup her chin. "How could you see how much I love you when you didn't even love yourself?"

"I..." Sakura was at her wit's end. "I… you… You love me?"

"I think so." Kakashi's hand brushed along the scar behind her ear and she shied away from his touch. "At first, I thought you were perfect. You and I, that was a logical choice. But then you had to go and be…."

"What?" A hot tear slid down her cheek. "What am I, Kakashi?" She was emotionally exhausted; the day left her feeling raw and exposed. She should be at her apartment, not standing by his kitchen hearing confessions and noticing the patterns of his pajamas. Yet, try as she might, she couldn't resist hearing more from him. Not when he was being so honest.

"You had to be… you are flawed. It makes you interesting and that is why I love you." His lips brushed across her chin. "Perfection is overrated."

His words unraveled Sakura's emotions like a spool of thread, causing more tears to fall. The guilt and fear that had followed her was gone; it was relief that was making her cry. As lucky as she was to have Naruto as a friend, she was even luckier to have Kakashi show her how to forgive herself.

"I don't think I can do this right now," Sakura whispered as she wrapped her arms around him. She could feel the bones of his vertebrae under her hands. "You'll have to give me a few months. There are vaccinations to work on for Spring too." She missed the comfort of his touch even as she let him go. Maybe she was in deeper than she thought?

Kakashi lifted her wrist to his lips and gave it a small kiss. Sakura's heart gave a flutter. "That's just a minor inconvenience. I'm not going anywhere."

"Oh. Okay." She gave a shaky smile as she went to the door. Her body was still shaking, but now she felt so much lighter. "I'll leave the file here then."

He stood in the doorway once more as he let her out. "Goodnight, Sakura." Kakashi seemed imposing when he answered the door, but this time Sakura only noticed the warmth in his voice.

Sakura heard the door shut behind her and she paused to brush a strand of hair behind her ear. Her fingers ran across the scar hidden there, and once again she was reminded of Ikuye, a small girl who liked to cut the strings off of kites. Before the memory filled her with melancholy, but with her heart on the mend, Sakura was able to find meaning behind it.

Freedom.

Chapter Text

Six months later…

Kakashi, Sixth Hokage of Konoha, worked in silence in his office. The windows were open, allowing the noise of the village to whisper in his keen ears. However, Kakashi's mind was very far away, his mind distracted. He worked in silence and tackled the stack of papers in a mechanical fashion.

" It's just a minor inconvenience. I'm not going anywhere."

How long had it been since he last uttered those words to Sakura? Six months? It felt like six years.

For as much confidence that Kakashi had in his own rationality, he should have seen this coming. Sasuke's death, village rumors, and the cancelled wedding had caused Sakura to withdraw in her shell. Kakashi, who had been ahead of everyone since he made genin at age five, had made a terrible miscalculation.

He thought the math was simple.

He thought that his gentle coaxing would sway her.

He thought she could see, rationally, how good they could be for each other.

But Sakura was a person, not a math problem. She was too clever to be manipulated without fallout. And most importantly, while she had a level head on her shoulders, she would always lead with her heart. The very thing that endeared her to him was the reason his whole plan was on the brink of falling apart.

Kakashi had heard the phrase uttered before, but years later, he hadn't changed all that much.

For a genius, he could sure be an idiot at times.

Now that Kakashi's eye was no longer an issue, Sakura's weekly visits vanished from his life. Tsunade had returned to the village a few months prior in order to help with the spring virus. The Godaime had queried on his personal mission of wooing Sakura when she arrived, and Kakashi mentioned that he was giving Sakura a few months' time. Sakura came to him for advice, requests, and reports, but never for company. He hadn't seen her in over a month; Sakura had deployed to Grass to personally oversee the vaccination process. Kakashi found it increasingly difficult to ignore the dark, gnawing feeling inside of him.

There was also a shift in village sentiment which contributed to Kakashi's sinking mood. His initial months of being Hokage were full of well-wishes, shocked faces when he showed up on time, and smirks as they added another report to his mountain of paperwork. Kakashi, in return, had followed up with gentle teasing in which he started referring to his former teammates as 'minions' and gave threats of assigning his cheeky staff to a certain D-rank mission… in Lightning Country.

(The Raikage liked his Tapestry Collection to be cleaned bi-monthly, and the mission was viewed with as much hatred in Cloud as Konoha's infamous runaway cat).

That had all changed when news broke about Sasuke, and Kakashi no longer wore his headband tilted. The Sharingan was dead after being on the verge of extinction for over a decade, and Kakashi had more than his fair part in it. There was a lot of talk, some raised eyebrows, and a healthy amount of critics. Then again, there always was when any Kage took a bold step based on their vision of their village's future. In a way, all the criticism was a sign that he was doing well. But it was also the death of Kakashi's name as he shed the moniker that he had his entire jounin career, and fully embraced being the Sixth.

To the village he became 'Hokage-sama' or 'Rokudaime-sama.'

Kakashi had no idea how important his name was to his identity until no one was using it. And really, it was to be expected for someone of his rank. But Kakashi had never wanted to be Hokage. He had personally led most shinobi in the village on a mission of some kind. The personal connections Kakashi held with his fellow shinobi were being cut off with every dutiful nod. He much preferred it when they had cursed his name as he skipped out on his lunch bill.

The death knell to Kakashi's mood was that Gai no longer called him ' Eternal Rival! '

Those had been two words that had caused cold chills to shiver down his spine, two words which signaled ridiculous contests and a multitude of nightmares, two words that symbolized a persistent and undying friendship. Kakashi would have never thought that they would become so important, and while Kakashi knew that Gai didn't view him in a different way, it still stung.

Kakashi had been here before, disconnecting with his body as if he was a mere observer. It began during that blurry period of time in his ANBU years; Kakashi had been so mired in his own grief that the only thing keeping him alive was his duty to the village. As a teenager, he had focused on using the Sharingan to the maximum, and the purpose of copying one more jutsu for Obito kept him afloat. His mental state had improved when Yamato was assigned to his team; they shared a similar temperament and Kakashi found someone he could truly trust.

But Kakashi never was able to completely shake the feeling; it didn't help that being a shinobi his entire life gave him limited social skills beyond ninja matters. 'Swiftiest ways to kill an enemy' wasn't the best way to make a new friendship. That's where Icha Icha 's brilliance came from; Kakashi was able to join conversations with shinobi his age without being expected to contribute any comments. Team Seven had been very effective in chasing that feeling away. But he was here again, with that pressure that gave him tunnel vision more terrifying than chidori.

This is why he never wanted to be Hokage.

The clock next to Kakashi gave a beep and he focused once again. The medics had arrived back to the village a couple of days ago. He had instructed them to report to Tsuande at the hospital upon their return, as the news would make the most sense to her. His own meeting was supposed to occur this afternoon, more of a report on village relations rather than medical progress.

Kakashi needed some good news. The past months had been… difficult. It was with some anxiety that he put away his current work and made his way to the meeting room to meet the medics. It settled when he saw Sakura, a smile on her lips as she spoke to the man next to her. She had grown her hair out and Kakashi was reminded of that party in Snow Country last summer, where she had looked so feminine he had a hard time reconciling she was the same person he knew.

He sat at the head of the table and the chatter died. The head scientist began to speak at Kakashi's nod.

"Hokage-sama, you will be very pleased by the news we have this year. We've made some very real progress on the virus. We took samples of blood throughout all the shinobi nations. Preliminary findings indicate that this season did not have as many variants as in previous years."

The team continued to speak, highlighting areas with heavy trade routes, and the widespread vaccinations given to Hidden Villages. Kakashi skimmed through the report in his hands, his mind processing graphs and charts with a glance.

The head scientist finalized the meeting with his most promising news. "The additional tissue samples acquired from Sasuke Uchiha has led to some interesting findings. We should be able to make a vaccine to eliminate outbreaks as soon as a couple of years."

Sasuke had been reduced to a tissue sample, all of his likes, dislikes and dreams of the future washed away except for what remained in a petri dish. Kakashi clenched his fists under the table, curling his eyes into that fake smile only one person in the room could see through.

"You are right, I am happy to hear that. Well, I think we should call it an early night. I'm certain that you all still have some catching up to do, after being gone for a couple of months. You are all dismissed."

The medic team smiled at him as they gathered their things. Sakura was the exception; her eyes narrowed as she observed Kakashi. "Thanks, Hokage-sama," the team said as they left.

The bottom dropped out of Kakashi's stomach. Hokage-sama .

"Is something wrong?" Sakura remained seated.

"No." The response was automatic as he looked at the report in front of him in order to avoid eye contact.

"Well, okay." There was an unconvinced tone in her voice. "I'll see you next week, maybe."

Maybe . The vague response caused Kakashi to grow hot. He couldn't afford this to go on, and Sakura was the only person he could possibly talk to. His tongue felt awkward in his throat as he struggled to get the words out.

"Close the door," he said in a tight voice.

"Hokage-sama?"

Kakashi stood, causing his chair to skid behind him, and he stumbled to the washroom adjacent. He twisted the cold water tap to the max and began to wash his hands. The bright fluorescent lights made his hands seem ghostly, but he found it reassuring to see them pale and not drenched in blood. He flicked the water off of his fingertips and went for round two of the soap.

He felt Sakura's presence behind him, but he ignored her. This was a coping mechanism he forced himself to develop to function, to survive. This ritual was familiar; he just needed to wash his hands ten times; a countdown in which he focused on the cool water at his pulse. He squirted a seventh pump of soap in his hand; the soap was lemon-scented and stringent. His breathing eased as he finished with round nine. At round ten, Kakashi remembered that he had some lemonade in his refrigerator. That was going down the drain the moment he walked in the door.

He finished his tenth and shut the water off with a decisive snap, then pulled at the towel to dry his hands. He turned to see Sakura's blurry form in the doorway. He looked away from her, blotting his watery eyes with the towel still clutched in his hand.

"Did you know," Kakashi asked, "that I suffer from chronic depression?" His voice came out raspy, despite his attempt to make it light-hearted. He kept his eyes glued to the adjacent wall, too afraid to see her expression.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Sakura's voice was neutral, and Kakashi thanked his lucky stars that she knew him well enough to give him what he needed.

"No." He rubbed at his face, the scent of lemon stinging at his nose. "But I don't have a choice. Can we just have this discussion somewhere less –uh—fluorescent?"

"Of course. Lead the way."

Kakashi swept out of the bathroom, not giving Sakura a second glance, leaving the papers from the meeting on the conference table. He made a bee line for his living quarters. Normally he would tell Shizune when he was done for the day, but the panic attack had left him shaken and uneven. They usually occurred in the middle of the night after a nightmare, not in broad daylight after a meeting.

"Lemonade?" Kakashi asked as they entered his apartment. He had yet to look Sakura in the eyes.

"Water is fine."

"Good." He opened the refrigerator door and tossed the lemonade in the sink with a little more force than needed, causing some of it to spill on the kitchen counter. He grabbed a cup from the cabinet, filled it with water, and slid it to Sakura. He saw her hand reach for the cup; her fingernails were painted the same color as the seal on her forehead.

"Kakashi."

At his name, his eyes snapped to hers without his permission. Her green eyes reflected patience and concern, and Kakashi felt some of his tension ease. This was Sakura, the woman he had chosen for her fists of fury and determination. The one he admired for being able to show emotions so readily, no matter the pain it caused. He hoped that everything he thought of her was true.

"You should start at the beginning and for me that was twenty-seven years ago." Kakashi slid onto the kitchen stool next to her. He took a drink of water from his cup to force away the lump in his throat.

"My father's failed mission left him grief-stricken and he committed seppuku. I didn't understand his motivations when it happened at the age of eight, but by the time I was fifteen, I had begun to wonder if this feeling…if it was hereditary." He took a deep breath before continuing, his eyes drifting once more to her hands.

"I would sneak into the library during off hours to read the medical scrolls. I was too scared to actually check them out and have other people find out. Missions cause a wide variation of effects on brain chemicals; shinobi taking medications for chronic medical conditions are benched. I self-diagnosed myself because the village couldn't afford to take me off the roster, not with our shinobi ranks so low. Besides, everyone had PTSD; it was hard to see if there was something wrong, because everything was wrong.

"I came up with coping strategies; the hand washing is one I use for a panic attack in the middle of the night. I copied all of those jutsu with the Sharingan because I needed to give myself something to work on. Along the way I became famous for it, and mastered all five elemental natures. Reading Icha Icha was Jiraya's idea; he thought I needed to be less serious. I realized that if I read the books in public I could be in a crowd, but not actually expected to talk to anyone.

"Things became manageable when Tsunade became Hokage. She had seen enough war, and cared a lot more about the village's health than Sandaime. She actually had a fairly discrete program going on after the attack on the village, where antidepressants were handed out with mission scrolls."

"How about now?"

Kakashi felt a lump gather in his throat and his lips tighten. It was easier to speak of things in the past rather than talk about the present. Sakura still felt so damn far away.

"I…I'm not good at this," Kakashi mumbled.

"Look at me," she said. His head tilted, but his gaze only went as high as her shoulder. She had twisted the ends of her hair in soft curls.

"Kakashi…" It was the way she said his name that did him in, so familiar and needed, that it tore away his delicate control. He reached for her, pressing his forehead against her shoulder, his hands scrambling for hers. She smelled of hospital disinfectant and it served to ground him to the moment, of her warmth that was real in his arms.

"That's why I wanted to help you," he confessed. He brushed his fingers along the scar behind her ear. "Feeling like this—all the time—it's too hard." He felt her body hitch and her hands freed from his to give him a proper hug.

There was more he could say, like his most embarrassing memory was when he was nearly declared a missing-nin at the age of twenty-two by self-medicating. He had been unaware that anti-depressants and soldier pills didn't mix, and it had messed up his chakra system so bad it took him two months extra to get back to Konoha. He could bring up how his father loved his village so much it killed him at the age of thirty-eight, and as Kakashi crept closer to that age, he could feel his anxiety growing.

He should have pointed out the missive he received this morning, in which a team he sent out a week ago was found dead. He had spent most of his life protecting his village, but as Hokage, he now felt as if it was his job to send them out to die.

A desperate neediness hit, and he clutched her tighter, hoping to keep Sakura with him a moment longer.

"Please…" He wet his lips. "Please don't stop saying my name. That's all I ask. Don't…" That tight and heavy feeling was back, paralyzing him in a way a jutsu never had.

"Kakashi," Sakura repeated in a clear voice. Even as her heart broke inside, she marveled that anyone who struggled to be happy could turn out so good. If all it took to keep him together was to hear his name, then Sakura would utter it every day for the rest of his life.

~O~

The next day dawned with the sun rising in Sakura's eyes, waking her from her light sleep. She had stayed in Kakashi's living quarters, too shaken by the experience to have him far away from her sight. Kakashi had regained his composure after an hour, his cheeks pink in embarrassment as he pulled away from her. She had announced her intentions of staying the night by stealing one of his jounin shirts as a nightgown and making herself comfortable on the sofa. Kakashi had woken her up several times through the night, giving her a guilty look every time she peered up at him from where slept.

There was a knock on the door, polite, but firm. Sakura made her way to answer, knowing that Kakashi needed a bit of a lie in. There was nothing that couldn't wait a few more hours, unless someone had the dumb idea of blowing up the moon or something.

"Yes?" she asked with an arched eyebrow, staring up at the porcelain mask of an ANBU. The only one she knew by sight was Sai, every other ANBU remained elusive. The ANBU removed his mask, and Sakura saw Yamato's face.

"Sakura?" There was a puzzled expression on his face. "What—where's the Hokage?"

"Resting," Sakura gave a tired smile. "He had a rough night."

Yamato gave her a knowing look. "I see. I'll stay out here just in case someone else tries to interrupt his sleep. Let me know if you need anything."

Sakura thanked him and shut the door. As she turned she saw Kakashi standing in the doorway of his bedroom, his hair falling forward in a way that added to his exhausted look.

"You don't have to send everyone away," he said.

"I just want to get rid of nosy people. If they see me here, they might think we slept together." Sakura scowled.

"Does it bother you that much?" Kakashi's eyebrows furrowed together.

"Yes!" Sakura replied hotly. She realized her mistake when she saw Kakashi's stricken face. "No! I just… I don't want people poking their noses where they don't belong. I had enough of that with Norio."

"Well, we have that in common." He took a seat on the sofa and Sakura followed him, tucking her feet underneath her to rest her hands on her knees. Kakashi's head was tilted back, eyes closed. He still wore his customary sleeveless shirt with an attached mask. She was delighted, however, to see one unfamiliar piece of clothing.

"Nice pajamas," remarked Sakura, referring to his loose pants. They were covered in dog bones and paw prints.

"Mmm… birthday gift from Kurenai and Mirai." He opened an eye and peered at her. "I want to apologize about yesterday. It was a difficult day, and I don't have the right to impose all of my… issues … on you."

Sakura stared at him.

She wanted to punch him for saying something so idiotic. It was her go-to instinct, and she knew that she would fall back into the familiar relationship she always had with Kakashi if she did that. Last night had changed things between them. Sakura didn't want to go back.

Kakashi had been a ninja his entire life, and had become a very good one, very young. He was never going to be a well-rounded individual and he knew it. Sai was the same way, lugging around books on friendship to broaden his social skills, and working on his emotions. Kakashi simply cut to the chase and forced his way of thinking on people as a sign of affection. If they stuck around, he prized their friendship beyond words, even if he was incapable of saying it. If they didn't, well, that was that.

Of course, he wasn't the only one like that. Many of her fellow ninja created forceful personalities as a way of coping with hard childhoods. Naruto had shoved his positivity into strangers and future- Kazekages. Gai taijutsu'd his way into spandex and infamy.

Sakura's betrothal to Norio had been acceptable because they both were powerful as individuals. Norio was heir to the country, but he was the delicate one in the relationship. Sakura had been more hesitant to marry Kakashi because she still felt... lesser ... than him. First he was her sensei, then he was team leader, and finally, as her Hokage. Even when their relationship had become more personal, he had the upper hand. Kakashi had admitted to requesting missions to Rice Country with her years ago to spend time with her. He had grown up with her betrothed. Kakashi had befriended Ms. Tokushima to sneak into her apartment. Sakura had known he was manipulative and a bit of a smooth-talker, so it had not angered her. However, she did not want to enter a marriage in which she had to struggle to be his equal.

It never occurred to her that Kakashi's mind and heart worked in unison because he was incapable of separating it. To Kakashi, 'please be my mission partner,' was akin to asking for a date. And he had taken her to all of those hot springs too. No wonder Kakashi had gone straight to asking for her hand in marriage upon his return.

No, Sakura couldn't go back to before. She didn't want to. After last night, she finally felt like she understood him.

If he was a different sort of man, Sakura would have thrown herself in his arms and gone in for a kiss. Kakashi's ever-present mask made it difficult. Instead, she leaned forward and pressed her forehand against his, their noses brushing against each other. He stilled, but didn't push her away. Gaining a bit of confidence, Sakura straddled his lap, and he tilted his head in response.

"Sakura, I didn't tell you this to make you feel sorry for me."

"I know."

"Then why are you doing this?"

Kakashi's hands were resting against her waist, his touch light. It was a familiar action which had puzzled her for so long, but now she now understood. Even with all the teasing, he had always respected her. Her eyes fluttered open to match his dark gaze. For the first time, Sakura saw who they could be. It was no longer difficult to imagine waking up next to him, sharing quiet breakfasts over morning coffee, and the comfortable silence that came with familiarity. She could see him rising with their children, teaching them values of honor and hard-work.

"I want to elope," Sakura said as leaned back so she could see him properly. A myriad of emotions crossed his face and Sakura hurried to explain herself. "It's Friday. If we leave right now, we can reach Tea Country before Monday and be done with it."

Tea Country was famous for its informal marriage ceremonies; the tradition began when ninja had wanted to get married somewhere peaceful before heading out to the frontlines. War was no longer an omnipresent threat, but Tea's reputation had remained.

Kakashi frowned. "We don't have to rush this."

"You've been thinking about this for years, and I've been thinking about it for months. How is this rushing?" Sakura gave a small laugh in disbelief. "We live in a village full of ninjas, Kakashi; there is no way we can keep this quiet. Tomio showed me some reports on the economic benefits to a large wedding ceremony when I was engaged last year. If word leaks out about us, we will be put under pressure to have a large ceremony. I know you would hate it, and I know it's not for me either, so why put ourselves through the misery? Plus, Shishou is planning on leaving the village again by the end of the month, and if we leave now, you'll have someone to cover your position. "

"You really want to leave today?" Some of the doubt in Kakashi's eyes remained. Sakura pulled away from his lap to stand in front of him and grasped one of his hands at her waist to press it against her heart. She was a kunoichi whose hands could crush a mountain or save a life. Her heart was the most delicate part of her. Kakashi was a man whose entire world was built on protecting those he loved.

"It's still a little broken," she confessed. "You'll look after it, won't you?"

"Yes." And there it was, that familiar voice which contained a decade's worth of memories together. It took her breath away, how her early years of respect for Kakashi were morphing into this new and wonderful thing. It wouldn't be simple, but they would be fine.

"Yamato is outside," Sakura said. She could feel a silly smile cross her face as she stepped away from him to gather her things. "Tell him to message Sai and we'll grab Naruto at the border. Meet me at the gate in an hour."

"Already telling me what to do," Kakashi mused with a shake of his head.

Sakura responded by opening the door to the hallway and shoving Yamato at him. She laughed when a muffled, "Senpai!" squawked from behind the closed door. She headed toward her apartment to pack a bag, wondering if she had anything in her wardrobe for the occasion. Halfway there, she veered off course to the west.

Sakura had moved from her old apartment in December, into another unit closer to the hospital. The "omlette incident" had been a little much for the other tenants, and Sakura had found little hospitality after Kakashi had been made Hokage. She hadn't been there since, although she had waved to Mrs. Tokushima when spying her at the market. The woman had always been so supportive of their relationship; she deserved to be amongst those who heard the news first. Sakura could smell breakfast cooking in the hallway when she arrived at the apartment.

"Goodness, what brings you here, Sakura?" uttered Mrs. Tokushima upon opening the door. She beckoned Sakura to enter and make her way further in. Sakura shook her head as she lingered in the entryway.

"I'm sorry, I don't have much time." She wrung her hands together. "I have to meet Kakashi at the gates in less than an hour and I still have to see my parents." Mrs. Tokushima gave Sakura a shrewd look.

"You're eloping to Tea?" Mrs. Tokushima chuckled at Sakura's shocked face. "Oh, don't be so surprised. You're wearing his shirt, silly girl! Not what I expected, but it's a good thing I am prepared for just the occasion. It comes with having a family full of shinobi. I'll be right back."

Sakura waited as Mrs. Tokushima vanished further into the apartment. She emerged holding a bag and handed it to Sakura with a fond pat on Sakura's wrists.

"I hope it is suitable for the occasion at some point of your trip. There is one for each of you."

Sakura reached into the bag to pull out a red yukata and a peek in the bag revealed another in blue. Sakura knew that she would be able to find something more formal for her ceremony in Tea Country. But it would be nice to have something new for Kakashi and her, especially since Mrs. Tokushima was so fond of the both of them. Sakura blinked quickly, keeping the tears that threatened to fall at bay.

"Thank you." Sakura gave a quick bow.

Mrs. Tokushima beamed as she took sight of her former neighbor. The dejected girl that she had met a few years prior was nowhere to be found. Mrs. Tokushima waved her off and sent Sakura off to continue her errands. She finished her breakfast with gusto, pleased that she had part in arranging the marriage of the Hokage. She thought of her grandchildren and read the paper.

Mrs Tokushima went to the market a little later in the day, shopping for produce and selecting a fish for the soup she was planning for dinner. She waved to the teachers as she passed the Academy, eyeing the chunin with a scar across the bridge of his nose. That man was so polite every time she spoke to him, and Mrs. Tokushima thought of the butcher's daughter, a timid woman who had no interest in leaving the village gates.

'Perhaps,' she thought.

That afternoon, Mrs. Tokushima met Mrs. Yamamoto at a tea shop. Their children had attended the Academy together, and Mrs. Tokushima found a strange friendship in the other woman. Mrs. Tokushima's sons had gone on to have respectable ninja careers, excelling in surveillance and information gathering. Mrs. Yamamoto's children never made it past the genin exam, going on to open small businesses that did rather well. Mrs. Tokushima was well-liked and respected, while Mrs. Yamamoto was avoided because she was a nosy gossip.

'The Yamanaka girl could probably learn a few things from her,' thought Mrs. Tokushima as she was told the details of an A-rank mission that occurred along the border of Fire and Water. She smiled into her cup of tea as she let Mrs. Yamamoto finish.

"I have a bit of news to share with you," she said. "I have it on very good authority that our Hokage eloped this morning." It was rare for Mrs. Tokushima to gossip, and she was going to enjoy it for all it was worth.

It was only Mrs. Yamamoto's experience in gathering classified information that stopped her from spilling tea everywhere.

"Which one? The Godaime or Rokudaime? They are both the village right now after all." Mrs. Yamamoto thought it over. Tsunade was old, but she looked youthful. Was there a man that didn't mind that sort of thing? The Godaime had loved once before, so maybe enough time had passed that she had found someone new.

As for the Rokudaime, well, Mrs. Yamamoto had never found him terribly impressive. One of his favorite trees to read his porn in was near Mrs. Yamamoto's house. She always had to close her apartment windows when he read, since his giggling would carry into her house. Mrs. Yamamoto found both options difficult to believe.

"The Rokudaime, of course."

"And with whom?" Whoever married the Rokudaime must have the patience of a saint. Mrs. Yamamoto gave her friend her most impressive glare in an effort to break her. It didn't work, as Mrs. Tokushima finished her tea without melting into a puddle of fear.

"To the love of his life," Mrs. Tokushima replied.

"He was in lo—"

"—I can't betray his confidence. He's a very private man." Mrs. Tokushima gathered her things as they made their way out of the tea shop.

Mrs. Yamamoto's mind buzzed as she cataloged the names she could contact for more information. She didn't know any that were in the Hokage's inner circle of confidants, but surely if word spread to the entire village she would get a name or two.

Mrs. Yamamoto waved goodbye to her friend and departed for her home.

~O~

Kakashi and Sakura were married on Tuesday, only having Naruto, Sai, and Yamato in their company. Sai had promised to document the occasion to the best of his abilities, and had his ink brush ready the entire trip. Naruto's eyes had been so full of tears during the ceremony that he missed it when Kakashi lowered his mask. Kakashi had derived a great deal of amusement from Naruto's annoyed face when he found out.

After the ceremony, they made their way to Rice Country to enjoy the hot springs. That ended up being a costly mistake; Naruto had been so upset he missed Kakashi's face that he tackled every man in the hot springs to see if Kakashi was hiding under a henge. Sai had chosen to draw the whole fiasco, rather than deter his friend. When their fellow guests had demanded their removal, Sakura agreed to compensate everyone's stay for a night in apology. By the next morning, everyone had found out Kakashi was the Hokage. Naruto was able to play off the incident as a "bodyguard situation."

The five of them were on their way back to Konoha a week later. Tsuande had promised to keep the village running for two weeks. There was a yearly camel race at the end of the month in Suna, and Tsunade's bags were already packed to make the trip. It had been a good two weeks, and Kakashi had thought he was trapped in a genjutsu more than once. They were just out of the village gates; for the first time in a quarter of century there was more than one person named Hatake.

Tsunade was waiting for them at the village gates. Kakashi felt a shiver crawl down his spine when he saw the dangerous smile on her lips.

"Is something wrong, Shishou?" Sakura was aware of the danger in the air too. Kakashi reached over to give her hand a comforting squeeze.

"No, no, nothing at all," Tsunade replied as she beckoned them to a training field just west of the village entrance. "Word has spread of your nuptials, Kakashi. You have quite a few people waiting to congratulate you. Most thought you would remain a bachelor for life." There was innocence to her tone that set off a million warning bells.

"Thank them for their continued support, but I'm a bit tired from the journey and would like to rest." Kakashi's arm was nearly ripped from its socket as Tsunade prevented his hasty exit.

"Nonsense. I promised to personally escort you there. I want to see your face when you see how... supported... you are."

Kakashi heard Naruto grumble something to Sakura about wanting to see his face too. The rest of his company followed with the sort of resigned walk found when attending the funeral of a passing acquaintance.

Tsunade and Kakashi exited the tree clearing, her firm grip still on his left arm. The first person he noticed was Gai, tears streaming down his face and a bouquet of flowers in his arms. He saw Genma, Raidou, and Anko and a crowd of individuals he recognized from his time in ANBU. His eyes slid across to the colorful cake; he wasn't much of a sweets person anyway. The clans were to his right, the Inuzuka at the forefront.

"The Rokudaime is touched by your continued support," Tsunade announced as Kakashi caught sight of the banner hanging from two trees behind the crowd of people he cared for so dearly.

CONGRATULATIONS KAKASHI AND YAMATO!

Sakura and Naruto's boisterous laughter didn't drown out Yamato's strangled noise of embarrassment. True to his word, Sai captured the moment perfectly.

~O~

Later, after the blush died down from Kakashi's cheeks, he would explain that he married Sakura. Fingers were pointed everywhere as the crowd wondered who the source of the mix-up was. Sakura would laugh in delight as she cut the cake, a rainbow-colored monstrosity that tasted of walnuts and spice.

Later, Sakura would move in with Kakashi, bringing with her hundreds of different soaps and lotions that made him sneeze when he had his mask off.

Later, Kakashi would give Kiba Inuzuka a week's worth of D-ranked missions in Lightning Country. Kiba's penchant for gossip was never the same.

Later, Sakura's perfume would make Kakashi sneeze right into face, breaking her nose. Sakura would stop lowering his mask for a goodbye kiss. Instead, she would stand on her toes and he would tilt his head down to touch foreheads as they had done for the first time at the training ground by the lake a year ago.

Later, she would love him. It would show in the way she leaned against his shoulder in parties and when her stomach began to show with child.

Later, they would visit the Ehime estate, son in tow. Norio and his wife had a daughter named Masako, and the Daimyo would try to arrange a marriage between the two children. Sakura would not be amused.

Later, Kakashi would miss his rematch bet against Gai with the llama when Sakura went into labor with their second: a girl with wild, pink hair.

Later, couples would start a trend of taking an engagement photo by standing in front of one another with foreheads pressed together. It was said to be bad luck to announce your wedding without a "Hatake Kiss."

Later, the virus that Sakura worked so hard on was no longer an issue, and she focused her extra time on mental health. Sakura would place Kakashi on daily antidepressants when he hit middle age, despite his protests.

Visitors to Konoha were welcomed to the village with the sight of the Hokage Mountain. Locals would tell the foreigners there were a few constants no matter what season it was. There would always be a ninja in green spandex racing around the village declaring the value of youth. The Akimichi only ate at the best restaurants. And finally, the meaning of devotion could be found at the Hatake compound, for they were loyal in mind and heart and nothing less.