A/N: One important announcement at the end!
"You seemed a bit... lenient with your information, wouldn't you say?" Kabuto remarked. The three of them trudged through the snow of Iron Country on their way to Otogakure. Kakuzu had to agree with that statement. She'd given out everything they asked for like candy, no real reservation or hint that she had something to hide. Sakura gave a sly smile.
"Yes, but does that information carry any heavy weight?"
Kabuto furrowed his brow. "Heavy weight?"
"First they asked of my association with Konoha. I stated I had none, an obvious fact as it was. Two, they asked about the Akatsuki, who were in fact an international problem in the past. I agreed that they integrated into the village but I gave no particular idea to what position they had in the system, aside from Kakuzu-san, who had no other excuse to attending the Summit. Why would I tell their deeper purposes? Then came the mention of land. Uncharted territory that became ours. All I did was add some more fluff to it."
Kabuto rubbed the back of his neck and started to think he became more of an influence on her than he first thought.
"And then there were the alliances we made. Well, that just came out of the recent addition of our history textbooks," she said. "Anyone can get their hands on them once they go into circulation. Those textbooks also happen to include my personal report of what happened with the Jomae—nearly everything I told the other Kage. Last was the announcement of Sasori-san's active status. Now he doesn't have to wear a hood and mask whenever he goes out on missions with his genin team. If I didn't disclose this up front, I'm positive that everyone would have a fit."
An owl soared high over their heads before diving down and perching on Sakura's shoulder. It held a dead frog in its beak.
It placed it in her hand.
"Besides, Konoha isn't quite playing by the rules. Who's to say that I can't do the same?" she grinned, holding up the small amphibian. The two in her company stared at her for a few long moments, stunned at what they just heard. Yes, everything she said at the Summit... was common knowledge to the people. Absolutely nothing she discussed had been a village secret or had any true value to it.
Kakuzu pinned a stare at the shorter man. "You did a swell job in raising that one."
"Better than I ever imagined," Kabuto chuckled. It subsided once he focused on the summon on her shoulder, "but how do you explain that?"
Sakura scratched the top of the owl's head, pleased when it made a cute crooning sound. "There were unusual animal densities in the area, which included the population of dogs and frogs. Once Bunko-san informed me of this development, I decided to play my hand in it as well."
Suddenly, they felt as if they were being watched. Along with their snow-colored surroundings came hundreds upon hundred of bright yellow eyes. The amount of owls they were witnessing felt unbelievably ominous. Kakuzu shook his head.
"As you've told me many times before."
The eyes disappeared soon after, probably to resume their predatory watch over the other shinobi still in the country. Kabuto really was content with his choice to stay with her in Otogakure eight years ago. She sure as hell wasn't an Orochimaru, but maybe that was for the better.
"What about the faux treaty with Konoha?" he asked.
"An excuse, of course. What Kakashi-san said was true, after all. If Naruto found out, he would come to Oto and cause a stir. That's unacceptable," she said. "So I'll deal with everything in that village. My old team, my old friends, my old sensei, the council..." Her eyes glimmered. "... and probably something about the Uchiha."
"Sakura's not stupid," Kakashi mentioned. "She wouldn't just step into a treaty that quickly without some ulterior motive behind it. There's something that she must be planning, there has to be."
He looked to Kurenai and Shikamaru. They were still in the building in Iron Country, preparing themselves for the trek back to Konoha. But the both of them had stayed silent. Kakashi sighed, understanding the situation and keeping everything else he had to say to himself. Her appearance had done more than just shocked them.
It disturbed them to the very core, shaking their insides and squeezing the air out of their lungs with enough force to kill them.
"Maybe she should've stayed dead," Shikamaru murmured. Kakashi's eyes immediately snapped up to the younger man. What words to say about a close friend, he wanted to exclaim, you're talking about Sakura! My student, your friend...
Though a person who faked her death for six years.
Kakashi grabbed his Kage hat and began his walk out of the building. It looked like an unforgivable act from anyone's standpoint. This sort of thing—it turned years of grief to an embodiment of rage. How could she do this? Why would she do this? How in all seven hells had she picked a village over her family?
As he stepped outside, he looked up at the cloudy skies. His breath was made clearly visible despite him wearing a mask. He missed Sakura. Just like everyone else did. What he couldn't understand was any possible reason for her to do what she did.
Pakkun bounded up to him, short stubby legs kicking up the snow. He slid to a halt and looked to his summoner.
"Yo. Why are you back already? Was there a problem with the surveillance?" Kakashi asked. Pakkun grimaced, throwing paranoid glances around him and the tree lines.
"Look, 'Kashi. It's a normal thing for this area to be crawlin' with summons and watchin' everyone else's moves, y'know? But this ain't like any other Summits. The Otokage came, and it ain't a surprise that the damn birds came with," he sneered. Kurenai digested his words and raised her eyes to the snow covered trees. The more she stared, the more she could make out the shapes of white strigiformes. They seemed to have detected her gaze and stared back, bright yellow circles piercing through her soul.
"The birds?" he repeated. The pug nodded fiercely.
"These freakin' owls! They're all over the place, starin' like we offended them or somethin'," Pakkun huffed. "We saw a bunch of them before when you sent us for reconnaissance those years back, but we thought nothin' of it. Who would? Ta no Kuni's known to be swarmin' with 'em anyways. But if they all came here, it ain't a coincidence. Summon or not, these are all that Kage's doin'. And that explains why Jiraiya-sama's frogs haven't returned."
A dawning realization crashed into the Hokage like a tidal wave. Sakura had taken such great lengths to keep her identity a secret that she placed watchdogs in every square foot of her country. Such creatures were efficient with their prying eyes and their sense of common knowledge. With such a large system at her disposal, it was no wonder that she was so effective in seeking out spies. Owls were the type of summons that didn't just accept any shinobi to be their summoner.
That person had to be smart and pure of heart.
How could Sakura... after all she'd done...?
"We wouldn't have to resort to such measures if you haven't done something to incite them," a soft voice crooned. A brown owl landed on Shikamaru's shoulder. It fluffed its wings before tucking them close to its body and regarding the group thoughtfully calculating eyes. Pakkun spread his front paws and growled, earning him an irritated glare.
"How rude. Is that how you greet a fellow summon?" the owl sniffed. "Well, you are a dog after all; nothing like cats. They're snobby, but at least they have manners."
"This is why I'm so sick of ya' birdbrains! Have ya' heads so far up your asses 'cause 'ya think you're so goddamn smart!"
"Why don't you go play fetch somewhere else? I'm sure that can't be too complicated for you."
"Hey, now. There's no need to get hostile," Kakashi interrupted with a nervous chuckle. "Come on, Pakkun and, I'm sorry, you are?"
"Bunko. Sakura-san's personal summon."
There was a short, uncomfortable silence. Her name mentioned so casually like that still made them queasy, and they needed a lot more time to get used to it. Kakashi looked down at his summon.
"Can you and the others please continue keeping an eye out? I'd really appreciate it."
Pakkun seemed a bit reluctant to leave them alone with that thing, but nodded nonetheless and returned to his post. Bunko felt the gloom hanging in the atmosphere and pecked the nearest thing she could find. Shikamaru's head.
"Ow! What the—?!"
"Please, lighten the mood. Your ordeal with Sakura-san shouldn't be taken as a depressing one," she said. Shikamaru immediately shut up. "Oh yes, don't think I'm not fully aware. Sakura-san left her home village in exchange for another she never knew. I understand. Katsuyu-chan was kind enough to inform me of the depth of Sakura-san's situation."
Her and Katsuyu were on quite good terms, actually. They'd met on several occasions and had spoken over a multitude of topics over the past forty years. In fact, if it weren't for Katsuyu, she might not have even heard of Haruno Sakura at all. And if it weren't for Katsuyu saying nothing but wonderful things about the girl, she would have never sought her out from the very beginning.
"So you know about how she faked her death," Kurenai brought up quietly. Bunko nodded.
"Yes, I was there when the body was placed for the Uchiha to find," she replied. Shikamaru's eyebrows came together.
"What do you mean 'placed for the Uchiha to find'? She did it on purpose? She wanted Sasuke to come back to Konoha?" he asked incredulously.
"That's something you'd have to ask her about, hm?" Bunko mused, "Now for the real reason I came here. Sakura-san had moved her arrival time for your meeting. She's making a straight journey there- and will make it to your village in three days time."
"That's... she'll make it there before we do!" Kurenai exclaimed. Kakashi clapped his hands together and forced a smile onto his face.
"Maa, let's not keep her waiting then."
Rock Lee and Shino were on guard duty today. It was calm for the time being. Barely anyone had come through, there weren't any problems, and it appeared as just being another one of those days in Konoha.
That is, until three figures approached.
At a close range, they could make out the image of Kakuzu and Yakushi Kabuto. Kakuzu they had never met before, and Kakuzu looked far different than what he had donned in the past—but what really caught their attention was the figure in the center. Whoever it could be was shorter than the two of them with a thick cloak wrapped around their shoulders and a hood pulled over their head, the shadow shielding all facial features.
"... What's your business here?" Shino questioned. "Something concerning Otogakure?"
Nearly everyone had at least heard something about the Akatsuki. Uchiha Itachi and Hidan had been spotted around the village so many times now that the shinobi were starting to get used to them. The council had been angered greatly, yes, but nothing was done because of how fragile diplomatic relations already were.
"I know Kakashi-san isn't back yet, but I'm only two hours or so ahead of him," the hooded person said. Lee and Shino froze. "I hope it isn't too much trouble if I go and wait in his office."
Voices were unmistakable.
And this one wasn't any different.
Lee slowly left his post and stood toe to toe with the shorter stranger. He reached over and tugged the hood down.
Pastel-colored locks brushed against his bandaged fingers.
Tsunade strode down the hallways of the Hokage Tower. Word traveled fast when the Otokage stepped foot into the village. Male or female, still no one knew. They were completely covered as Lee and Shino escorted them to Kakashi's office. She was curious over who had taken the reigns after Orochimaru's demise.
As she walked through the corridor to formally greet the Otokage, she saw Lee close the door behind him with an unusually serious expression. She called out to him.
His head snapped up to her. "G-Good afternoon, Tsunade-sama!" he greeted in his usual Gai-like fashion. Though there was something off about it, like the stuttering and the way he wouldn't meet her eyes. "Did you, um, come to greet the Otokage?"
She nodded slowly, confused as to why Lee would act like this.
"Yes... Did you speak to them?" Tsunade asked. His face dropped as he wrung his hands together nervously.
"I did, ma'am. But it's just—that—I—!" Lee sighed and moved to the side. "I think it would be better if you saw for yourself."
With a raised brow, she twisted the door handle and entered the room. Kakuzu and Kabuto, in fact were not present. She saw a cloak neatly placed across the chair and a young woman sitting on the desk facing the gaping window. The first thing she noticed was the short cut of pink hair, increasing her heart rate to a million beats per second. Tsunade then saw the back of the woman's red shirt and recognized the white circle instantly.
She grit her teeth. "What kind of genjutsu are you pulling?" she hissed. The woman slid off the desk and turned around. Tsunade stopped breathing as she took in those oh-so familiar eyes and the diamond on her forehead.
"I'm... sorry that this isn't one," Sakura said, meeting her old shishou's gaze blankly. The sannin clenched her fist and walked up to stand in front of her presumably deceased student. Had she not been wearing her heels, Sakura would've probably stood an inch taller than her.
"The Akatsuki killed you."
"They helped me complete the ruse."
Sakura's eyes grew soft as she bowed her head. It was not out of shame, but of obvious apology. She hadn't meant for things to turn out the way it did, but it happened. And if she was given the chance to do everything again, she wouldn't.
"I don't regret the things I did," she informed with a determinable hardness in her voice, "and I hope that you, of all people, can understand why I don't."
She looked up. To Tsunade, it was like staring into a mirror. She saw a tired, but familiar gleam in those eyes. They were the eyes of someone who was sick of everything they were raised to be and that chose the opposite. Then the seal. Sakura had done something that pushed her past her limit; something she had to suffer dire consequences for or die trying.
Tsunade didn't know whether to kill her for real or bring her into a long deserved hug.
She settled for the latter.
Sakura was brought into a fierce squeeze and readily wrapped her arms around her mentor. She felt Tsunade sigh into her shoulder as she tightened her grip.
"I was hoping that you wouldn't turn out like me."
A smile crossed the younger's face. "Sorry to disappoint, shishou."
Kakashi breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Sakura lounging in his seat, speaking some whimsical nonsense with her advisor and right hand man. And what nonsense it sounded like because he really had no idea what they were talking about.
"I wouldn't believe you even if you told me he got a bug to like him," Kakuzu deadpanned. Sakura groaned.
"You received the invitation too!"
"It must be an invitation for LSD and cocaine because he was probably high and talking out his ass when he made them," Kabuto said. Kakuzu nodded in assent, causing her to roll her eyes and smack both their arms.
"Your guy's faith in Hidan is impeccable."
She hopped to her feet when she spotted Kakashi's entrance into the office. Gracing him with an open smile, she walked over to him. "So, are we starting?" Sakura chirped. For a moment, she was twelve again. That naive little genin who was blissfully ignorant of the real world. He quickly shook that image from his head and returned the smile.
"Yes we are. If you'll follow me, I'll show you to the meeting room. Kurenai and Shikamaru will stay here and direct your colleagues to the waiting area," he said. Sakura glanced over to her to her two associates and flicked her eyes to the side before following the Hokage. He led her to one of the rooms on the upper floors. Kakashi let her in, revealing five plush seats set in a circle with a small table beside each one. She made her way over to the furthermost chair.
Sakura turned around in surprise. "Kakashi-san? Why are you apologizing to me?"
He shut the door behind him and sunk down in the seat closest to him. He then let his true wariness show on his face as he lifted his headband and held the the bottom part of his face, pulling his mask down as he did so. Sakura gaped at the gesture and took his silence to sit down.
"It was something we did, wasn't it?" he murmured dishearteningly. "You're not the type to just leave without saying a word. What... What was it that we did to make you leave?"
First he lost his father, then his teammates, then his sensei, and now his student. When you lose people as easily as that, you start to wonder if it really was your fault or if you were just cursed. Kakashi believed both, to be perfectly honest. But when two of them came back having lived a life better than when he'd known them, it made it think.
Really, was it him?
"... My decision wasn't made off you guys. Losing you all was the consequence of my actions, not the thing that drove me to it," she answered. "Everything I did was on me, and I will take the full blame for it. Kakashi-san, I have a singular reason for it."
He looked at her.
"I was tired of being just a supporting character in everyone's stories. For once in my life, I wanted to do something for me. Not Naruto, not Sasuke, but me."
He wasn't able to get another word out when the door opened. The three Konoha Council members came into the conference room; Mitokado Homura, Utatane Koharu, and Shimura Danzo. Sakura's eyes narrowed at the second councilman. Out of everyone in the trio, Danzo was the one she came to despise. There was just something about him that made her want to reach over and tear out his neck.
"So the rumors were true. The traitor has returned," Danzo remarked. She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair as the council members took their respective seats. Kakashi's mask was back in its normal place, as well as his hitai-ate.
"With your return to Konoha, I assume you're here to receive punishment?" Koharu inquired. Her hands were neatly placed in her lap, her eyes brimming with something akin to having passed fair judgment. Sakura smirked.
"Not at all. Your diplomatic policies clearly state that you cannot harm or detain persons of another village despite all previous crimes, correct? It's a valid point agreed upon by both Konohagakure and Otogakure as far as I'm concerned," she stated with a light smile. Homura frowned in displeasure.
"You are a representative."
"I'm the Otokage." She wanted to laugh at the expressions that crossed their faces. Especially at Danzo's menacing scowl. "I came here to discuss certain things concerning the two villages. Not a treaty, per se..."
Kakashi shifted in his seat. He knew it.
"... but to qualify or dispute any ideas about Otogakure. I have already made clear my stance and involvement with allies, other villages, the Akatsuki, and the Jomae Massacre, and you may ask Kakashi-san for clarification on that information. Other things you may want to discuss can be discussed as long as the information is able to be disclosed," Sakura said. She saw them exchange careful glances with each other and could see which direction this conversation was being carried to, like she had predicted in an earlier time. Danzo leaned forward, his fingers curled around some notch in his cane.
"You have an Uchiha working under your orde,." he remarked, "A true heir to the clan's bloodline limit. But that bloodline limit has flourished in this village since the very beginning. If anything, the sharingan belongs to Konoha and Konoha alone."
The attention was shifted back to Sakura as they awaited her answer.
"That may be so, but I think that belonging has diminished ever since the Uchiha massacre. That clan does have its roots in Konoha, I agree, but the ratio of Uchiha serving each village has been tilted in my favor, because there are two Uchiha working under me. The first and obvious one is Uchiha Itachi, and the second is the previously assumed deceased Uchiha Obito; a soul you may recall as being a student to the Yondaime Hokage."
In the midst of the shocked responses, she pulsed chakra to her Akatsuki ring, an act that didn't go unnoticed by the occupants of the room.
"If you don't believe me, I'm quite sure you'll believe the man himself."
They only had to wait in a few moments of tense silence before there were knocks at the door and the handle turned. Tobi came into the room, casting a quick glance at Kakashi before smiling at his Kage. "Ah, so you want me to do it right now, Sakura-sama?"
"If it isn't too much trouble."
Tobi nodded and took off his eye patch, both eyes swirling into a familiar red. His newly implanted eye shouldn't have been able to form another sharingan, but his Uchiha blood had gradually come to change it to the way it was supposed to be even when sharingan had yet to be fully developed and was still in its early stages. Kakashi averted his gaze as Sakura gave a large grin.
"So, any further questions?"
Shikamaru was loitering around the window of the Hokage's office with a cigarette hanging from his lips. He then took a long drag, letting the streams of white spill into the air in front him. He turned his head at the sound of voices behind him, seeing that Sakura and Kakashi had returned. He tossed the smoke on the roof top underneath him and crushed it with the toe of a sandal before opening the window and climbing through.
"Do you plan on staying long?" Kakashi asked as he sat down at his desk. Sakura shrugged, cracking her neck.
"Long enough," she replied cryptically. "There are a few things I still need to do."
He nodded in understanding then looked to Shikamaru. "Can you show Sakura-san to where she'll be staying for the duration of her visit? Thank you."
Sakura bid her old sensei goodbye as she followed the silent smoker out of the building, keeping pace beside him while carefully watching his actions. Her cloak hung loosely around her shoulders with the hood bunched up around her neck. They were out in public where the world could finally see her as she was. Whispers followed them with every step they took. Sakura was positive that the whole village would know by noon tomorrow.
She tilted her head towards him. "Hm?"
He scratched the back of his head. "Did you place that body there for Sasuke to find?"
"Bunko-san told you that much, did she?" Sakura mused. "Well, I suppose I owe you that explanation in the very least."
They stopped in front of the hotel she'd be staying at and kept to one of the larger trees. The cool winter air bit at their skin, the sun making the cold much more tolerable. Sakura pulled the cloak tighter around herself.
"I asked Zetsu-san to put the body in Team Hebi's way in hopes that once they came across it, it would make Sasuke rethink his plan of revenge or at least be nice enough to hand it off to Konoha. What I didn't expect was for him to actually stay. But when I heard that Zetsu-san fixed the blame on the Akatsuki, it made far more sense as to why he probably made the decision." She watched the few people that passed them by. "Maybe it was one of those things I tried to do to make up for what I'd already done. Leaving the village. Making you guys feel miserable." Sakura met his eyes, hers presenting absolute apology. "For killing Asuma-san."
Shikamaru's hands receded into fists, balled up at his side as he looked away. The heavy feeling returned to the pit of his stomach, tightening their hold on his organs and killing him from inside. He knew that case had to be her fault, as all evidence had pointed towards her, but he didn't want to believe it.
No one did.
"I don't expect you to forgive me. Not now, not ever. And I'm okay with that," she continued, a bitter smile on her face, "You don't have to listen to me. I'll say what needs to be said to everyone I let down and then I'll leave. You'll never have to see me again."
He heaved a heavy sigh. "It's... It's not that we want to forget you," he said as he scratched the back of his head, "What we—What I don't understand is why you'd do something like that. Why you'd leave the village without a word, why'd you never contact us, why you'd fake your death, why you'd attend your own funeral."
Sakura looked up at the leaves. "If I told you guys, you wouldn't have let me leave, would you?"
He stared at her for a long while until a cough of a laugh bubbled out his throat as he moved his head upward at the falling leaves as well. "You really are troublesome."
Kurenai stood in her kitchen with a teapot heating up on the stove. Mirai was tucked into bed for the night and all she needed today was a cup of her favorite jasmine tea and some time to reflect on her time at the Summit. Seeing Sakura after such a long time and after every thought she spared respecting her passing, she never imagined she'd see her again. Kurenai couldn't even fathom the reactions of the rest of Konoha Twelve.
She furrowed her brow and padded over to the door. She opened it silently, eyes widening at the sight of the aforementioned standing on her doorstep. Sakura smiled.
"Good evening, Kurenai-san. I know it's rather late, but I was hoping that I could speak with you about a few things," she said. Kurenai sidestepped as she held the door wide open.
"Of course, please, come in. I'm heating up some tea right now," the older woman answered. Sakura slipped off her shoes and followed her into the kitchen. She sat down at the table as Kurenai tended to the whistling pot. Sakura surveyed her surroundings, taking in the cozy appeal of the apartment. The walls were painted a soft yellow with fresh flowers sitting at the window sill.
"How have you been?" she asked. Kurenai took two mugs out of the cupboard and placed them in front of her guest. After pouring tea into both of them, she gave gave one to her and sat on the opposite side of the table.
"I've been fine. And yourself?"
"I've been doing well."
The lapsed into silence. Kurenai's fingers curled around the whole of her cup as she stared down at the tinted liquid. She felt movement from across the table.
Looking up, she saw Sakura walk over to where she sat. Then quite suddenly, she dropped into a low bow.
"Please accept my sincerest apologies, Kurenai-san," Sakura said, stunning the other. "I didn't mean to make your life harder than it needed to be."
Red eyes flashed with something unreadable as they stared at the top of a pink head.
"Asuma-san was a good person and didn't deserve what happened to him. Not in the slightest. It's all my fault that he isn't here anymore. I know saying this won't bring him back, but I want you to know that even though there's no excuse for my actions, I'm sorry for what I did to you and your daughter."
She kept her posture, not moving a single muscle in her bow. Kurenai lay a hand on Sakura's shoulder and began to pat it gently. She raised her head.
"I already forgave you a long time ago."
The Kage slowly retracted her bow. "Kurenai-san..."
"Kaa-saaan! I can't sleep!"
A little girl who couldn't be older than seven toddled into the room, one hand rubbing her eyes and the other clutching a pillow. Upon entering the kitchen, her bright red eyes landed on a stranger. She was now fully aware and inched closer to her mother.
"Hello." Sakura greeted. "What's your name?"
The girl, taken in by such a kind smile, shyly returned it. "I'm Mirai, miss."
"Mirai? That's a pretty name," she mused. Mirai giggled. Kurenai lightly guided her daughter towards her and smoothed down unruly black hair.
"Head back to your room, dear, and I'll be there soon to read you another story, okay?"
Mirai nodded and muttered a goodbye before pitter-pattering back to her room. Sakura watched her go, feeling a stab of guilt. Kurenai raised the mug to her lips and took in a long sip.
"Would you like more tea?"
She sat back down in her seat. "Yes... thank you, Kurenai-san."
Tobi appeared in the Hokage's office with his eye patch tucked safely in his kunai pouch. His heterochromatic eyes met Kakashi's as he sat down in the chair in front of the desk.
"It wasn't a nice surprise, was it?"
Kakashi sighed and reclined in his chair while training his eyes toward the plain white ceiling. "Not in the beginning, no. But I think I've received the bulk of the shock back at the Summit. But... the both of you coming back at the same time? It almost seems like this whole things has all been a dream. The dead weren't really dead to begin with. Maybe a movie."
"Well, whatever you may think of it, don't be too hard on her. She had a good enough reason for doing what she did," he mentioned. Tobi's mind drifted off to when Nagato visited Otogakure. That day, the things they learned were far too important to take for granted, and he'd be lying if he said that what they heard hadn't enforced their will to work under Sakura.
Talking down the man who wanted to rule the world?
A fantasy they never thought possible.
But Sakura had done it. She stuck her neck out, blatantly called him out on his mistakes and misconceptions of peace and suffering. It didn't matter that she was physically able or had the brains to back up her brawn, but that she was able to get through even the hardest of heads.
Haruno Sakura gave them their lives back, and they couldn't do enough to repay her.
Kakashi's eyes drifted to him. "You know why she left."
"I have an idea, but I can't be too sure," was his airy reply. With no other choice but to accept the answer, the Hokage returned his gaze to the ceiling.
And so they sat in silence with nothing but the dim lighting and moon rays flooding in to the room. But this time, it was comfortable. One that they could both eventually come to live with as Kakashi and Obito, the remnants of Team Minato.
The sun was barely up. Sakura was content in sitting in an onsen this early morning. The warm water seeped into her skin and relaxed her worn muscles. She'd stay here for a little while longer until she'd go seek out everyone else she wished to give an explanation to.
And apparently, fate decided to cut her efforts short.
Sakura braced herself and resisted the urge to hold her head in her hands when she heard two awfully familiar voices approaching the hot springs. She could barely make out the conversation, but heard her's and Shikamaru's name thrown about here and there. It felt like ages until the door slid open, two figures stepping onto the rock flooring.
"Ino, I just can't—"
Hinata stilled when her eyes landed on the single person sitting in the hot springs. Her jaw dropped down as she covered her mouth with her hand, a few tears springing to the corner of her eyes. Ino stopped as well. She looked at her friend with concern before following her gaze.
The reaction was instantaneous.
"YOU! I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!"
Though it was the reaction Sakura was expecting. She dodged the fists the flew in her direction and easily blocked the ones that were aimed straight at her face.
"Ino!" Hinata exclaimed.
"All these years! All these GODDAMN years and you were alive!"
Sakura ducked down in the water before popping up on the other side of the bath. "Ino..." she tried. Her call fell on deaf ears as Ino continued her assault, face growing an intense red as and endless surge of tears cascaded down her cheeks.
"Eight! Whole! Years! EIGHT! I saw your dead body! I had to WATCH as you got buried! And this is what you do?! You're who-the-fuck-knows-where doing who-the-fuck-knows what for EIGHT FUCKING YEARS while we're over here crying our eyes out thinking you were the first one to go?!" Ino screamed. She threw another punch, ending in Sakura catching it and holding onto that hand. Shen then flung another fist forward, the other catching it as well and keeping a steady grip.
"Ino, will you listen to me? Please?" Sakura asked softly. Ino's bottom lip trembled at the other's calm. She looked so much older, so much more mature, and so much unlike the girl she knew so many years ago. She snatched her hands away and turned away to lean against one of the rocks that lined the water.
"... Why did you go...?" Ino whispered. Her words were broken as sobs wracked her entire body. Sakura pressed her lips together, watching her friend break down through the quiet sounds of her crying. She extended her arm to try and comfort her, but she didn't deserve the opportunity to do that. Moving her eyes back to the entrance, she saw Hinata still standing there. She had retreated far enough until her back collided with the wall.
"I..." Sakura pulled her arm back and let it fall into the water. "... I couldn't stay here anymore."
Sakura walked out of the onsen in her heavy red jacket and breathed a sigh. The confrontation with Hinata and Ino went just as well as she expected—which was not at all. She tried to explain herself by saying that she wasn't happy with her life in Konoha. She loved her friends, dearly, in fact, but she just... she just couldn't keeping living that same life as another obedient Konoha shinobi.
She couldn't get any other words out than that before Ino got out of the bath and left the onsen.
"I... I can't even look at you right now. I'm want to listen but... but I just can't..."
She tried to extend her explanation to Hinata who took it far better than Ino had. Hinata stayed for a little while longer, quietly listening through Sakura's story. Or at least, the basic outline of the story. She knew quite well what it felt like to not be good enough or to now belong in a place you've always called home. Hinata agreed with her reasoning, but she didn't exactly support the method she used to get it.
"I'll ask you the same thing I did Shikamaru. If I told you guys, you wouldn't have let me leave, would you?"
Hinata looked down and sank lower into the water. "We would've done the same thing we did to Sasuke," she answered quietly. Sakura nodded and tried a smile to lighten the mood.
"Yeah. And that would just cause to much trouble for my village."
The heiress took a moment to process that and slowly raised her head. Her eyes went wide and her mouth hung agape once more. "You... which village?"
Sakura kept the smile on her face. "Otogakure."
She tucked her hands into her jacket pockets and walked down the streets. Her feet led her down a well-known path to the parks of sprawling steps and tall, overbearing trees. As Sakura let her old memories play back through her consciousness, she spotted an easel set up against a railing and a pale man sat on a stool in front of it.
His head whipped to the side. "S-Sakura?"
He abruptly stood up from his seat. In doing so, his elbow collided with his painting, sending it falling to the side. Sai made a move to catch it, but tripped over his stool and ended up tumbling down into his paints. He quickly sat up, not minding of the white and orange paints that stained his black sweater.
"You're really alive!"
Her eyes went from the easel, to the stool, then to him. "I'm sorry," she deadpanned. "I think I mistook you for someone else. The Sai I knew would never... well... do whatever you just did."
Sai laughed, causing her to cringe and begin to edge away when he stood and walked up to her. He was a foot in front of her when he gave her a huge grin and opened his arms. "Oh come on, eight years and this is what I get? At least let me give you a hug," he said. He looked down at his sweater. "Oh yeah. It's the paint, isn't it? Here, let me just..." He tugged it over his head and exposed the dark gray thermal underneath and opened his arms up again. At her frightened expression, he let out another laugh and dropped his arms. "Am I that surprising?"
"This is the first I'm hearing of an eccentric, bubbly you. I expected emotions and all, but I didn't think you'd start to take after Naruto," she replied. He shrugged, keeping up his shameless grin.
"It's not like I had any other influences to go off on. Kakashi-sama? Kind of lazy, procrastinates, you know. Not the type of person I was in the first place. Next you've got Sasuke who still sulks around every now and then but keeps quiet most of the time anyways. I like to talk. So then I have the ever influential Dickless who helped me become all of this," he said, giving himself a grand gesture. "Of course I haven't taken after everything like having that ridiculous ramen obsession or using his trademark 'dattebayo', but I guess there's enough for me to make an impact."
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Impact? More like something that scared me half to death. But not bad. I'm impressed with your emotional awareness; it looks rather good on you," she smiled. They both crouched down to fix his art set up. His pitch black eyes traced her curiously.
"I'd say the same thing for you."
"Oh? And why's that?"
Sai propped up the easel and placed his canvas back on it. It luckily hadn't sustained any damage. "Those eight years obviously did something to you. Good or bad, I'm not too sure yet. But the way you present yourself is so much different now. You hold your head up high, your back's straighter, and you have this, like, sort of authoritative look in your eyes. And that temper of yours went somewhere else because I'm positive that the you from eight years ago would've punched me for using the word Dickless," he chuckled.
Sakura thought about it. She didn't even bat an eye at his unusual nickname for Naruto, but maybe that was because she'd known Hidan for so long already and his mouth was far dirtier than anyone she'd ever met. And he worked in pediatrics.
"It's not really a good idea for me to punch people in the position I'm in now. There have been a few cases in the past where annoying redheads and blondes have gotten the best of me, but I think I've curved down the desire to express my temper well enough. That's what training grounds are for right?" she grinned. She took a seat on the railing to observe him as he continued his painting.
"Position?" he mused. "Let me guess. Otokage?"
"Always been too smart for your own good, Sai."
The sun was now high up in the sky, but it was still too early for any shops to open up for the day. Sakura thought about how much longer she'd have in Konoha before she had to return to her duties back in her village. She maybe had a day or two left until Kisame completely threw in the towel and would forcefully drag her back so he wouldn't have to do anymore paperwork. Then there was the big celebration in three weeks.
He didn't look up from his painting. "Yes?"
"Your reaction to this seems a little off. So far, I've received sad, angry, quiet acceptance, and enraged. You seem to be taking this in stride," she observed. He pointed his paintbrush at her.
"I was in ROOT, remember? I could read pretty much everyone like an open book, and you were no exception. It hurt when you left, but I was positive you had a good reason for it. You death threw me off for the longest time, but once I heard about the Spring Kunoichi, then I thought you must've returned somehow." He exhaled. "I was going to be mad if you came back with nothing to show for your disappearance. But with what you've accomplished, raising a village and becoming a Kage... well..."
He turned and gave her an even wider smile than before.
"I'm proud of you."
Sasuke didn't like these early morning training sessions, as he was never really a morning person, but it was routine. Shikamaru didn't show up like he normally did and last time he heard, he had no missions lined up because of his going to the Kage Summit, but he didn't spare it anymore thought. He probably had some plans, was all.
Besides, he preferred the solitude this one morning to mull over the more recent rumors he heard about yesterday. Haruno Sakura's return? Tch. It was just another one of those bizarre stories that happened to reach the pulse of Konoha's rumor mill.
"I can't believe you're doing this to me."
"It's not hard! Light blue or powder blue!"
"You and Kabuto are the same! This is ridiculous—those cards are showing the exact same shade of blue! Ugh, why didn't you discuss this with Marisu?"
"Because she told me to pick by the time I get back and I don't know which one to choose. I mean, this one's darker but—"
"Darker? Darker?! They're the same!"
"You're fucking colorblind."
"And I hate you for putting me through this bullshit again."
Sasuke's breath caught in his throat as he quickened his pace en route to the pair of voices. Right as he turned a corner right under the early morning light, he saw Sakura and Hidan arguing about... colors? He in his doctor's coat and she in a red jacket with white fur lining the hood. They were on the outskirts of his usual training grounds seemingly uncaring that he was standing there.
Suddenly, magenta irises met his, glinting the same way when they first met. He leaned forward and whispered something into Sakura's ear. Sasuke grit his teeth at the inability read lips when Hidan held up his hand to cover the view of his mouth. Sakura then turned her head to get a look at Sasuke herself, surprising him when her only acknowledgement was a slight frown and a sigh.
"Go to work," she grumbled. He laughed and gave a two-fingered salute.
"Have fun, Sakura-sama."
Sasuke's brow furrowed as he closed the distance between him and his former teammate. She stared up at him unflinchingly. "Why did he address you as 'Sakura-sama'?" he asked. Sakura crossed her arms over her chest, her answer sounding like the most obvious thing in the world.
"It's my name, of course. Have you forgotten it already?"
He twitched. "Why are you alive?"
Her frown sank lower. She reached over and flicked his nose, sending him stumbling back a few steps in shock.
"That's a rather rude way of asking," she said. "Though I suppose it's natural coming from you. I'm alive because I never really died in the first place. You found my 'body', brought it back to Konoha, and now you're a reinstated shinobi of the village. It's a win/win situation, isn't it? I'm sure you're familiar with such concepts since Orochimaru was your mentor."
He couldn't believe his ears. This was the Sakura he left on the bench when they were merely genin? Impossible. She would never act like this towards him, like a hurdle she had to hop over or a random stranger whose questions she had to satisfy with fluff words. And those eyes, looking at him like she had nothing better to do.
"... You've changed."
She bobbed her head. "Yes well, twelve years does many things to a person, in case you haven't noticed. Come to think of it, it proves true to you too," she mused. Sasuke raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah. For a minute there, it sounded like you actually cared about what happened to me," Sakura smirked. His eyes widened. No, this definitely wasn't the girl he knew so long ago. That girl was annoying, kind, and boy-struck who didn't care so much for the duties of a kunoichi. The person in front of him now was a whole other being with a whole other personality. He clenched his fists. And if this person had Hidan's respect...
"I am concerned about—"
"Concerned? I didn't know you had that word in your vocabulary."
He twitched a second time before continuing. "—where you've been all this time. Where have you been and what did you do for Hidan of the Akatsuki to take orders from you. Better yet, how did you get them to lie about killing you themselves?" he questioned with that same old monotonous tone. Sakura surveyed him for a while, eyes narrowing and a thoughtful expression crossing her face.
"Are you concerned of what I've made of myself?" She straightened and looked him dead in the eye. "Or are you concerned by the fact that Itachi-san now takes orders from me?"
Itachi was walking through the nearly empty streets of Konoha at Hidan's suggestion. What was it that crazed surgeon said?
"Go to those training grounds your little brother seems to go to all the time. I think you'll find something interesting when you get there."
He didn't have any cases scheduled until two in the afternoon, providing him ample to do whatever he pleased this morning. Itachi silently approached the training grounds and saw quite a sight. His little brother and his Kage were facing each other, the former a tad irritated and the latter in her professional mode.
"Are you concerned of what I've made of myself?" She looked Sasuke dead in the eye. "Or are you concerned by the fact that Itachi-san now takes orders from me?"
Oh. Hidan wasn't wrong about this being interesting. Itachi stopped at the corner that turned into the path and stayed, watching for the outcome from the corner of his eyes. Sasuke clenched his fists and grit his teeth.
"You say his name like he's a friend," he growled."You dare associate yourself with that monster?"
Sakura tilted her head to the side. "Monster? Itachi-san's one of the best people I know."
Itachi blinked, taking a long moment to understand what she just said and kept watching the scene unfold. Sasuke's eyes went wide with incredulity and fury that he probably didn't notice that his sharingan was fully showing. She was unfazed by his reaction and gripped both cheeks with her hand, squishing them together. Itachi blinked again.
"Twelve years and I thought you'd learn forgiveness by now. But maybe it's just because I've come to know Itachi-san for the past six years. I let him become a shinobi of Otogakure, offered him a spot in the hospital, and let him him do as he pleased. He puts everything into his work and does it in such a kind, quiet way that I'd completely forgotten what he did in the past. He moved on, Sasuke." Sakura let go of his cheeks and recrossed her arms. "Maybe it's about time you did the same."
He let the sharingan spin out of existence, but gained a deeper, more sinister scowl. "Don't talk about things you know nothing about," he hissed. Sakura shrugged and began to walk away with her hands in her jacket pockets and her short pink hair billowing behind her.
"Fair enough. I'll be seeing you around then, Sasuke."
Itachi watched as Sakura walked away then as Sasuke stormed to the training grounds before going off himself.
Sakura had said all those things about him to the person who hated him the most.
She really was something else, wasn't she?
Naruto hummed to himself as he ducked under the cloth entrance of Ichiraku's. With a bright smile, he plopped down onto one of the stools. He'd just gotten back from a mission and he was ready to refuel his energy.
"One miso ramen, old man!" he exclaimed with a raised hand. "With extra... eh?"
He was confused when Ayame shuffled up to him with a worried expression, glancing from side to side with her hands clutched to her chest. "Did you just get back from your mission?" she questioned quietly. He nodded.
"Yeah, I just got back like five minutes ago. Why? Is something wrong? Did something happen?"
She gulped. "She's back, Naruto."
"Sa-Sakura-chan. She stopped by earlier to say hello..." Ayame said. She gasped as a haunted gaze overtook normally cheerful eyes and as blood drained from his face, making him as white as a sheet.
"Not—Not our Sakura-chan," he tried. "Come on, she—six years ago—it—"
But the serious face Ayame pulled told him different. Trembling, he slipped off the stool and turned around to exit the shop. He ran right into his teammate.
"Sasuke! Sasuke, Sakura-chan, she's—!"
"She's at the Hokage Monument. Or she was heading there when I last saw her," he informed. Naruto tore past him, running down the road and avoiding the people as quickly as he could. She was back? No. It wasn't true.
By all the heavens he wanted it so and desperately hoped this wasn't a cruel trick the world decided to play on him. As he passed citizens on the street, he caught snippets of their conversation. It seemed like he was the last one to know.
"What?! That traitor—"
"No way, you're lying!"
Naruto leapt onto the rooftops and made his hasty path to the other end of Konoha. He was frantic as he tumbled onto the rock formation, twisting his head left and right in a frenzy, just trying to pinpoint her. He was gasping for air when he turned and finally saw a woman with pink hair leaning against the railing that overlooked the village. When he stepped closer, she turned around.
His chest flooded with relief. Naruto didn't know whether to cry or gather her up in his arms like he wanted to. But he couldn't stop the thread of anger that was slowly climbing up his chest, wriggling to his heart and constricting it with its hot iron touch.
"Sakura-chan... what the hell?!"
She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. This was why she wanted to visit him last. He would be the hardest one to talk to and the one she probably couldn't keep her bearings in front of. That, and she couldn't stand staring into his betrayed blue eyes.
"You left Konoha without saying anything! You disappeared! Like you never existed! What were you thinking? Sasuke had his reason, but you just left out of the blue! Just like that! You-You died! I swear I saw your dead body and then we buried you! We buried you six years ago!"
Sakura's jaw tightened. "Did you compare me to Sasuke?" she asked. Naruto's eyes flew wide.
"Did you not hear the words I just said?! You died! You completely cut your losses for no reason whatsoever and abandoned Konoha. To what—To become the leader of the enemy? And all you can focus on is being compared to Sasuke?!" he cried. Both his hands came up to grab at his hair. "You had no reason to leave! None! And you left without saying a single goodbye!"
He didn't realize how much he was riling her up. Sasuke had a reason but she didn't? His leaving was validated and hers wasn't because she didn't want to tell them face to face that she wanted to go and never come back?
"What was it, Sakura-chan?" he exclaimed. "What could you have possibly done that made you—"
"I was NO ONE!" she seethed. Naruto shut his mouth and took a few steps backward.
"Sasuke was the rookie and you were dead last, but it worked. It always had! You two had always been so strong and so talented that one day, everyone knew the both of you would become something great! And there I was. In your shadows. 'Work harder, Sakura.' 'Do better, Sakura.' 'Why are you so annoying?' 'Why are you so weak?' 'You're not shinobi material.' 'Just having book smarts won't get you far.' 'Why don't you try?' But I was trying! I was but nobody saw it!"
"I get it, you know? I was this little fangirl in the beginning, but once I saw how much you two were growing, and I wanted to do the same. But I was average and I knew I always would be. I don't have the sharingan. I don't have a goal I would spend my life working for. I don't have a godfather that would take me under his wing and teach me the prophecy I was meant to fulfill. And I certainly don't have Konoha at my back, believing that I would save the world. I'm not an avenger. I'm not a hero. I'm just a background character in both your stories."
Sakura turned around, gazing down at the Akatsuki ring on her finger.
"Then Kabuto came and offered me a chance to be the person I always wanted to be. Someone that mattered. I was going to refuse at first, but then I started to think... in ten years, where would I be? Sasuke was going to redeem the honor of his clan and you would be on your way to being Hokage. I was sure of it. And me?" she chuckled sadly. "All I was going to do was be happy for you. While you two would become legends, I'd probably still be at the hospital as a medic—maybe one of the best! But I would still be just me. I would still be just Haruno Sakura."
Naruto couldn't speak. He couldn't move his mouth, nor force words through his lips. All these years... he never noticed? How had he never noticed? She was his most precious person yet he couldn't see her suffering.
"In the beginning, no one had faith in me. Even I didn't have faith in me. What was I going to do? How was I going to bring Otogakure to a glory its never seen before? It seemed impossible." She turned around again, eyes brimming with unshed tears. "But I did it. I built up a shinobi village, gained allies, even expanded the country! I convinced each of the Akatsuki to join me! What kind of madman would try and do something like that? I became someone sixteen year old me would be proud of. I finally made a story of my own by becoming the Shodai Hokage. Finally, after so long, the world sees me how I've always wanted them to. Eight years. Eight years and I finally became a somebody."
"But, Sakura-chan..." Naruto croaked, finding his voice at last. "T-To me... to Ino, K-Kakashi-sensei, Baa-chan... always... you've b-been somebody. Always."
She gave him a small smile, a couple of tears sliding down her cheeks. "Was I?"
Her eyes were forlorn and empty. It Naruto see the helplessness and the loss in them, making his own heart break at the mere sight of her.
"Where were all of you when I needed to hear that?" Sakura glanced over the Hokage Monument, taking in the beauty of the place she once called home. "... Kabuto and Kakuzu will be wondering where I am. I should be going," she said. She hastily wiped at her eyes and made way towards the stairs. Naruto looked at her with an expression filled with nothing but unadulterated remorse.
"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan. I'm so, so sorry."
I'm sorry I wasn't there for you.
Sakura shook her head. "You shouldn't be the one apologizing. I left on my own free will, and it was my fault for not saying goodbye."
It wasn't that you weren't there for me. It was that you and Sasuke were so far away that I couldn't reach you.
He looked at her. "...Yeah, Sakura-chan?"
She smiled—a genuine one. One that lit up the night sky like golden fireworks.
"I love all of you, and I miss all of you, I really do. But in Otogakure, I've gained a happiness that I couldn't seem to find before. The people look up to me. They respect me. They need me. And maybe that's the difference between here and there," she said. Sakura glanced down the stairs a second time before turning back around, walking towards Naruto and wrapping her arms around him in a tight embrace. She felt his muscles tense up for a long while then grinned when he regained his bearings and returned the hug full force, burying his face in the crook of her neck.
"No, I'm wrong. It wasn't goodbye I was supposed to say." She rested her cheek on his shoulder. "It was thank you. For everything you've ever done for me."
Sakura felt the fabric of her collar grow damp.
"You two are heading to a bar?!"
She managed to bump into Kakuzu and Kabuto on her way down from the monument. They had been clarifying some things for the Hokage before they decided to go and take a break. Sakura was thoroughly surprised with the development. Kabuto never drank, and as far as she knew, Kakuzu didn't either.
"Before going to Kakashi-sama, I spent two hours arguing with Hidan about which color would match his suit better," Kabuto grimaced. "Now I believe that the whole thing isn't a joke, but I hate him for making me pick between light blue and powder blue. They're both such good colors."
Sakura's face scrunched up in disdain. "They're both the same!"
"Are you colorblind?" Kakuzu asked. She threw her hands up in defeat.
"That's it. I give up. You're all hopelessly obsessed with shades and are complete, utter nerds for it," she teased, "and I suppose I'll see the both of you later on."
Kabuto eyed her curiously. "You're passing up drinks? Kisame would be ashamed," he said. Sakura stuck her tongue out childishly at them.
"I'm classy enough to not wanted to take a drink at noon, thank you very much. I'll wait 'till three. Besides..." She looked to the side, observing the people and the sights of the village. "... we're leaving tomorrow. I'd like to walk around a little more before we do," she replied. Kabuto nodded and raised a hand in goodbye before he and Kakuzu continued their trek to the nearest barely-known bar. Sakura took off in the opposite direction herself.
Yeah, they were going to leave tomorrow and the Exchange Program was going to be fulfilled next week. This was probably going to be the last time she'd be in Konoha for a long while and she wanted to relish the feeling of this place before going back home.
What a funny word.
As she strolled down the streets, she saw someone just a little ways ahead of her. She squinted her eyes. "Itachi-san?"
He stopped and turned his head. Sakura's face lit up as she picked up the pace to catch up to him. She was truly delighted when he waited for her.
"Are you out on your break?" she asked.
"I have yet to begin my shift. My first case is at two," he answered. They fell into step with each other, going who knows where.
"I see. Actually, there's something I've been meaning to ask you." Sakura said. He glanced down at her.
"Are you going to Hidan and Marisu's wedding?" she questioned. He stopped again to regard her with a perfectly blank and honest face.
"I thought that was a joke."
"Not you too!"
Hidan getting married was a notion he never thought possible. But it was happening. They apparently had dated these last three years, again, with everyone thinking that it really was a joke. It was Hidan after all. And to think he'd be able to snag the Chief of Medicine who was known for her outstanding iron-fist knowledge in the medical community.
Though aside from that, he let his thoughts meander back to the woman to his right. Itachi had an inkling to what she had to go through as she encountered each of the people she left behind and had to explain herself to. Their reactions hadn't been pretty, he imagined, and she had to keep her front up through all of that. He was amazed that she had been able to keep her calm and cheeriness this much after everything she'd done in the past and the effort she made to encounter them.
She was such a strong person to confront so many people when he couldn't even confront his own brother.
But it's not like he was going to tell her that.
"Sakura-sama," he said, eyes sliding over to her. Sakura looked up at him with a smile.
"... Could I accompany you to the wedding?" he questioned. "If you aren't already going with someone, that is."
A dazzling grin crossed her face, making him pause then quickly recollect himself. "That'd be fantastic!"
And so they walked, Itachi forgetting his sorrows and Sakura her mistakes. Just this once; for the moment they had side by side.
:: END ::
- ANNOUNCEMENTS -
1.) SEQUEL: "Shinobi" (Coming Soon)
(A collection of short-ish chapters almost immediately following the ending)
They were shinobi: machines trained from childhood to kill or be killed. They were experienced soldiers; tools even. And that's why you can't blame them for being idiots in everything else.
"I KNEW it! I knew you had the hots for her!"
"I've seen cooked fish before. That's charcoal. I'm sorry that you're culinarily disabled."
"And you're surprised that your son gets a heart attack when you leave your arm in the living room."
"I don't care! We're watching the entire fourth season of Kunoichi Diaries and you're going to learn whether you like it or not!"