Summary: Konoha is at war, and there's nowhere else to go but up.
Chapter One: Sixteen
It is on days like these that Sakura remembers that Kakashi is a killer. They are standing in the aftermath of a short but fierce encounter with a band of Mist Nin, blood-soaked and sombre. Sakura is struck by how different he seems from the indolent pervert who skimps on dinner, with his lazy slouch and drooping gaze. The man before her now is none of these things - rather he stands tall and straight, his eyes alert and wary. As he turns to face them the sharingan swirls angrily and Sakura notices that it is the same colour as the blood in his hair. There is something feral and cold in his expression that she is not used to seeing and it makes her feel terribly uneasy. She shivers and doesn't think to blame it on the cold.
"Dispose of the bodies," he tells her. Then, turning to Sai: "Go scout the area. We don't know if there are others lying in wait, or worse - others ready to sound the alarm."
As Sai disappears into the trees, Kakashi pulls the hitai-ate over his eye. Sakura gets to work.
Sometimes Kakashi feels like there are two people living inside his head. One is a happy-go-lucky trooper and the other is like a shadow. Though at the end of the day Kakashi is a soldier and not the type to give in to metaphor, he can nevertheless appreciate the duality of what the image represents. A large part of being a soldier (warrior, guardian, shinobi, alive) is learning when one should and should not give in to shadow; it is something Kakashi struggles with on a daily basis.
These days, however, something feels off. The act of killing – an intimate, almost sacred thing – has become thoughtless. Two days ago he slit a man's throat and only felt a sick sense of pride at the efficiency of his kill. No remorse; no sadness - an almost-careless motion akin to scratching an itch. He supposes this makes him a fantastic shinobi (no one has had any reason to say otherwise), but feels an odd sense of dread settling like a heavy weight in his chest.
It is weeks later that he realises that it means he's losing his humanity. He has seen enough men who have lost theirs to know that something is terribly wrong. He thinks of his father and Obito, who died for theirs, and decides that something's got to give. Kakashi is not a young man (not anymore, especially not by ninja standards), and is therefore surprised that he is still learning things about himself. He feels a bit foolish in the moments following this revelation (because of course humans are complex and constantly evolving); nevertheless he resolves to be mindful of the fact.
The next time Kakashi has to kill (a woman; approximately 16 years old; brown eyes; black hair; two broken nails; probably Chuunin; this could have been Sakura) he remembers how it feels to die and is thankful.
Sakura is sick of this war.
She tries to recall what it feels like to be at ease, but this only makes her more aware of how tense she is. She has not slept more than four hours in three days. She has been popping soldier pills for two.
Team Seven has just returned from a reconnaissance mission and are waiting for Kakashi to finish giving his report. It is late December and the air is chilly – for Fire Country, at least – though it is still lush and evergreen. A part of Sakura wishes her home had more than two seasons (summer and not-quite-summer); that she could watch the flowers bloom in spring, the leaves turn in autumn and the quiet snow in winter. She's never been the poetic type but laments the absence of suitable sources of inspiration should she ever feel like writing haiku.
She rests her head on Naruto's shoulder with a weary sigh.
"I'm tired," he says.
"I want ramen."
"Idiot. Though that does sound good."
They are not quite sixteen and have never felt so old. Sometimes Sakura thinks she remembers what it feels like to be young (younger?); when her most pressing troubles were wondering when Sasuke would finally notice they were meant to be, and when she and Ino wore the same dress to a party, and other such innocent follies. Eyes closed to shut out the world, Sakura recalls the fabric of her short existence and wonders just who is laying the seams.
She stands up.
"I'm going back to my tent. Update me later?"
Sai, who has been staring blankly into space with his sketchbook in his lap, catches Sakura's eye as she passes. She takes in the sharp intensity of his gaze and wonders what it feels like to have never had the luxury of happiness; wonders what he falls back on when things fall to pieces. Then she considers Sai's insensitivity to pain and, though she pities him, has to forcefully suppress a bitter envy rising like poison from the depths of her heart.
There is blood everywhere; the air is thick with sweat and terror. A long time ago the citizens of Konoha ceased to be ninja and became cannon fodder instead. Kakashi has lost count of the endless fallen and tries to channel all his energy into simply staying alive. To his right he sees a young nin's arms being severed from his torso. The ensuing battle drowns out the sound of his screams and the whole thing seems more like a surreal dream than reality; but his body aches and his eye is bleeding and Kakashi knows that no nightmare could be so terrible as this.
"SENSEI! BEHIND YOU!"
Using the Kubikiribōchō's heavy blade for balance, Kakashi spins in a wide arc and cleaves his assailant in two. The blood is slick and warm and the dead boy's eyes are still wide with surprise. Kakashi notices a kunai embedded in the boy's forehead that does not belong to him and looks around just in time to see Sakura break a man's neck with her bare hands. He notes the grim line of her mouth and is sorry that Konoha has lost so many children to this war in ways far worse than death.
He finds her, afterwards, at the bank of the Kohaku river, and she is crying. Crying females have never been his forte and his first intention is to bid a hasty retreat; yet he is oddly relieved by the sight. He is heartened (in some sort of sick, twisted way) by the evidence of Sakura's frailty; by her humanity; by the childishness that has lingered in the quiet nooks of her heart in spite of all she has endured. So he stands beside her, unspoken gratitude and support passing from the weight of his hand to the crown of her head in the dim silver of the early morning.