i want to thank all of you who have supported this story up till this point; it wouldn't have been written without your kind words in the comments and encouragement on tumblr, or the fanart some of you have linked me to. i read every comment you leave and appreciate you all enormously.
i am in the process of compiling all the fanart and spin-offs this story has inspired over the years, so the next chapter will have all the links in the notes section, which i wholeheartedly recommend checking! y'all are super talented, and i am immensely grateful this little experiment of mine has inspired so many cool things.
anyway, all the best, and i hope you enjoy this [extremely delayed] penultimate chapter!
Telling Shikamaru and Chojuro that she was leaving…hadn't been as easy.
"What?!" Shikamaru demanded, while Chojuro just stared, his face unreadable, and somehow that was worse.
"I'm going to Oto." Sakura repeated, willing herself to maintain eye-contact. "I don't know how long for, but…I wanted you to know."
"Why?" Chojuro asked quietly, and Sakura still wasn't used to this side of him. The side that observed and catalogued and spoke with a quiet authority, but with a tone devoid of all other inflection. "Orochimaru's dead. You don't owe him shit."
"Cho," Shikamaru warned, sending Chojuro a look Sakura didn't understand, but Chojuro scoffed.
"You don't have to use his 'dying wish' as an excuse." He told Sakura flatly, not softening in the slightest when she winced. "If you want to leave, just say it."
Though she'd been quiet for the last few days, Sakura felt Inner stirring in the back of her mind, and felt her own anger spike as a result.
"You've known there was little tying me to Konoha itself for years." She accused, because she never bothered to hide that fact from Shikamaru or Chojuro. All three of them had often joked about moving to one of the Villages they were ambassadors to, or even hopping from one to the next simply because they could. Their indignation at her finally moving for real was baffling her. "Why is the fact that I want to leave such a shock all of a sudden?"
"Because you're not giving us a choice." Chojuro shot back, and now she could hear the anger in his voice. "You're putting us before a choice you've already made while I'm bed-bound for god knows how many months while they fix my spine, and Shikamaru has to take over as Clan Head. Even if we wanted to follow you, we can't right now, and you're not willing to wait for us. That's what's shocking, Sakura."
Sakura glanced at Shikamaru, but he avoided her eyes, his silence speaking for itself.
"Karin gave me two months." She managed at last, and even to her ears, it was a weak explanation.
"You've never been the type not to fight for something." Chojuro dismissed. "If you didn't want to go, you'd have argued and talked her around to extending the date, or installing someone in your place, or, hell, even telling her flat-out that you don't want the Snake's legacy."
Chojuro met her gaze, and for the first time since they've known each other, there was no warmth in his eyes. "You did none of that."
"Why didn't you tell us immediately?" Shikamaru asked, drawing her eyes away from Chojuro's hurt expression by raising the question Sakura had hoped to avoid. "Before we even came back to Konoha, I mean. Why did you wait?"
Sakura sighed, and gave up any pretence of fighting.
She was tired.
"For the same reason Chojuro just indirectly accused me of." She explained with a wan smile. "Because I felt guilty."
At the two questioning looks the declaration earned her, Sakura's smile turned wry.
"You think I don't know how this looks? We survived a war. Things can finally be normal, we can finally be together, without worrying about Orochimaru or Pein or the end of the goddamn world, but I'm planning to leave while neither of you can follow."
"The worst thing?" She asked rhetorically, running a hand through her hair. "The worst thing is that I want to go. Yes, it's daunting as hell, and while I don't want to leave Gen or senpai or the two of you behind, I want to see if I can piece Oto back together. I want to build something that's mine, I want to travel, I want to see Orochimaru's dream fulfilled and I want to do it my way."
She met their eyes, noting the surprise on their faces, and felt her anger fade, replaced instead with fondness and resignation, but no regret.
"I love you. Both of you." she told them simply, and the declaration felt less like the big reveal she'd always thought it would be and more like an inevitable fact.
Water was wet, grass was green, and Sakura loved them.
It felt like they were back on that boulder during Pein's invasion, promising each other forever in any and every reality despite never having so much as acknowledged their feelings out loud - it was just inevitable.
"And I would love nothing more," She continued, clearing her throat when her voice wavered, "than for all three of us to be together, whether that's in Oto, or Kiri, or hell, I'd even take Suna-!"
"-But Konoha feels like a cage." Shikamaru finished for her, and Sakura smiled sadly.
"But Konoha feels like a cage." She echoed, and Chojuro finally relaxed.
"You're not running away." He murmured, and his tone sounded breathless, like he'd just realised something. "You're not leaving us because you want to leave us."
Sakura blinked, completely thrown. It took her a few seconds to get her brain back in gear.
"Is that what you thought?!" She asked, disbelieving, her eyes wide as they flickered from Chojuro to Shikamaru, and the latter once again refused to meet her eyes, though his ears were tinted red with embarrassment. "You thought I gave this whole elaborate speech and justification because I, what, wanted to break up with you?"
She laughed, both from disbelief and immeasurable relief, then whined, dropping her face into her hands. "You're both so stupid, ohmygod."
"And yet you love us anyway." Shikamaru interjected, and Sakura could hear the laughter and relief in his voice. She didn't have to look to know just where to jab her elbow to hit his ribs, and his startled wheeze told her she'd been successful in exacting revenge.
"I'm beginning to question that decision." She grumbled, drawing a laugh from Chojuro. "But, by god, I do."
"The fact that you're both sitting on those godawful chairs instead of cuddling me is a personal offense." Chojuro butted in instead of acknowledging her confession, and Sakura would've normally laughed at how quickly Shikamaru jumped to his feet, if not for the fact that she wasn't far behind, scrambling to climb onto Chojuro's bed without kicking him off or accidentally hurting him.
"Now I just gotta figure out how to tell my cousin that I actually will need him to take over the Clan." Shikamaru announced after a few minutes of silence, and Sakura and Chojuro both snorted at the put-upon tone the Nara had adopted.
"Haven't you and your dad changed your minds like three times already?" Chojuro asked, and when Shikamaru lifted his head from the swordsman's shoulder with the sole purpose of glaring at him, he laughed. "Good luck with that."
"That's so helpful, thank you." Shikamaru grumbled, and Sakura had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at his petulant tone. "Sakura, I hope you'll be more useful."
"Nope!" she grinned, unable to hold the laughter back any longer. "But, if it makes you feel any better, you're invited to dinner tomorrow. Cho, I'd love to invite you too, but I fear the nurses would skin me alive if I tried to move you."
"Mei, too." Shikamaru added, while Chojuro rolled his eyes and elbowed Shikamaru in his other side. "Hey!"
Feeling like the world was slowly righting itself on its axis, Sakura allowed herself to relax. The hardest parts of her decision to leave were behind her. Now, she just had to…
Now she just had to build a Village.
Two days after the revelation at the hospital, Shikamaru made his way to the address Sakura had written down for him when she'd invited him. He was surprised to find himself at the doorstep of a house he'd been at once before, back when the decision to hold trial for Danzo and Sasuke had taken the Village by a storm. Still, he knocked, because he trusted Sakura and, worst case scenario, he could always just leave.
When the door opened, it revealed a man Shikamaru vaguely recognised, certain that they'd ran missions together before, though he couldn't summon his name to mind. The man was around his height, with shoulder-length brown hair brushed to cover his right eye, while his left swept over Shikamaru, and Shikamaru wondered what the man was seeing.
Then, he stepped back into the house, gesturing wordlessly for Shikamaru to follow, and called out a casual, "Sakura's boyfriend is here!"
Shikamaru felt his cheeks grow traitorously warm, which only got worse when another voice called back a sly "Which one?"
The brunet shot a grin at Shikamaru over his shoulder, then led him into the main kitchen-dining-living-room area, where some people seemed to have already gathered.
None of them had Sakura's distinctive hair, though, and Shikamaru felt a little ill-at-ease.
Though, there was someone with distinctive hair present, and Shikamaru couldn't help the way his eyebrow shot up, because he was sure nobody would believe him if he were to say it, but-
"I lied to him about when the dinner would start when I invited him." Someone told Shikamaru sotto voce, and he only barely managed not to jump. Turning his head to eye Sakura's partner more closely, he got treated to a very familiar grin, and- huh.
He'd always thought Sakura's mischievous streak came from her T&I senpai, but apparently Genma was just as much to blame.
"He only got here some twenty minutes ago. You should've seen his face when he realised he was early." Genma continued, grin only growing when Hatake Kakashi flipped him off from where he was leaning against the wall, and it was weird seeing the man in anything other than the standard jounin uniform.
Though, now that he looked around, nobody in the room was wearing anything resembling uniform, though Shikamaru could tell that didn't mean they were unarmed.
Apparently, Sakura wasn't the only one who found the sudden peace weird.
"Will you let the poor dear sit down, or are you going to keep him standing in the doorway forever?" an exasperated, and definitely female voice called out, and Genma shifted out of the way enough for Shikamaru to see a small, distantly-familiar woman ordering another man Shikamaru vaguely recognised around the kitchen.
Just how much of Sakura's makeshift 'family' had he interacted with before without realising?
When she noticed his eyes on her though, she smiled warmly. "I'm Eri, Shikamaru-kun. The lump behind me is my husband, Raido. We've met a few times before, though I don't think we were ever officially introduced. In any case, it's lovely to finally 'officially' meet you."
"…Likewise." Shikamaru managed belatedly, though it seemed the woman was either used to male social awkwardness or trying not to spook him, because she didn't remark on the delay beyond shooting him an encouraging smile.
Then, she pinned Genma with a sharp look and a snappy 'introductions, Gen-chan', and Shikamaru had definitely seen that expression on his part-time teammate and full-time girlfriend before.
"Right, well," Shiranui fumbled, taking Shikamaru closer to the large table, which on second thought was two different kitchen tables pushed together, and a man with short dark hair and blackout sunglasses was attempting rather unsuccessfully to put a tablecloth over the resulting, uh, creation.
"This is Aoba." Genma introduced, grinning at the grumble directed his way when he made no move to help the other man.
"You've met Kakashi, and you've probably at least seen Gai around the Village," he gestured at Sakura's old genin sensei and a man with an honest to god bowl-cut whom Shikamaru remembered from the Chunin Exams as a sensei whose teeth could blind.
"-and then next to Gai is Kei-kun, Rai's son." …how had Shikamaru missed the fact that a whole child was in the room with them?
Actually, that looked like a slightly bigger version of the child that had made Anko voluntarily stay in the kitchen during that dinner before the trials. Or a considerably bigger version of the toddler Sakura had had on her lap in the inter-Village Chunin Exams where they had been in charge of the theory exam. Which would make sense, now that he thought about it, seeing as that had been… three?... years earlier.
Genma, apparently oblivious to Shikamaru's inner bafflement and mild existential crisis, continued with the introductions.
"-and here," he finally pointed at the man who'd opened the door, who'd since sat down next to a man with hair that could've put Hatake's to shame in its wildness, though it was at least black, so slightly more reasonable.
A man whose leg Shikamaru only just noticed was in a thick plaster cast from thigh to ankle, and stretched out on two separate chairs lining the wall, and who seemed to emit a rather long-suffering air.
"-are Izumo," the brunet offered a lazy salute, "and Kotetsu, also known as Interchangeable Idiots One and Two, since 'Terrible Twins' had to be retired once they started banging."
"Hey," the newly-named Kotetsu interjected, looking rather indignant, though not at all insulted or surprised at the crassness, "be nice to the cripple."
"I know we look similar, but coddling you is Izumo's job." Genma shot back, completely unrepentant, and Shikamaru stifled a snort.
"Don't worry, Ko, Gen's just salty Eri liked our casserole more than his sucky gyoza." The brunet – Izumo – replied by way of explanation, patting Kotetsu's not-plaster-covered thigh in a reassuring, if slightly patronising, manner.
"You mean your store-bought casserole, 'Zumo?" Genma snorted, flipping his hair obnoxiously in a way that, bizarrely, reminded Shikamaru of Ino.
"That's better for the wellbeing of all involved." Hatake spoke suddenly, appearing as if summoned at Genma's other shoulder. "Kamizuki can't cook for shit."
"It was five years ago, will you let it go-?!" Izumo groaned, exasperated, letting his head fall back against the wall.
"-you gave me food poisoning on a mission to Kumo-!" Kakashi cut him off, his eye narrowed, though Shikamaru thought the man was rather enjoying the ribbing judging by the curl of his mouth beneath the mask.
"-once! I've had plenty of opportunity to poison you since, and I'm thinking I should've taken them-!"
Shikamaru let Genma pull him away from the unfolding argument, and he tried to wrap his head around the fact that Hatake Kakashi, the infamous Copy-nin, bastard extraordinaire, was relaxed enough to get into playground squabbles with some chunin.
"Kakashi got the official confirmation that he's out of the running for Hokage." Genma murmured, his arm still around Shikamaru's shoulders, as he led him out of the kitchen. "He's been chipper all day."
"'Chipper'." Shikamaru echoed, deadpan, shooting Genma a look he hoped conveyed just how ridiculous the idea of Hatake Kakashi and 'chipper' being in the same sentence was.
"For Kakashi's standards of emoting? He's on cloud nine right now." Genma snorted, but then he stopped and turned his full attention to Shikamaru, pinning him with a serious, if sympathetic look as soon as they were out of the main room. "How are you doing though, Shikamaru?"
With one simple, direct question, Shikamaru's breath was knocked out of him, and he realised that despite all the talking he'd done since the War officially ended, nobody had asked him flat-out how he was feeling.
Ino's in the hospital. Chouji's in the hospital. Chojuro's in the hospital. Sakura's leaving. His dad is dead. He's supposed to be Clan Head and he has no idea how to do that-!
He was breathing faster now, so loud he could hear it despite the roar in his head, and he was only vaguely aware of the fact that Genma was lowering them both to the ground and propping Shikamaru's back against the wall.
"Hey, hey, breathe, Shikamaru, come on." Breathe? He's been breathing this whole time. "Slower, you're hyperventilating. Deep, slow breath, c'mon, match me."
His hand was grabbed and placed flat over Genma's sternum, and Shikamaru could vaguely feel Genma's chest rising and falling under his palm. He dug his nails into the shirt, trying to ground himself enough to match the movement, but when he actually tried to breathe in deeper, his inhale caught on a sob.
And then, it was as if a dam finally broke.
He was distantly aware of Genma leaving at some point and coming back an undeterminable amount of time later with a few tissues and a glass of water, but he didn't say anything, just sat down opposite Shikamaru in the hallway and placed the tissues and water within easy reach.
Then, he started talking. Shikamaru wasn't entirely sure what Genma was saying, his brain could only catch isolated words every now and then, wrung out by the unexpected panic-attack, but he let the lull of the other man's voice wash over him and settle him until he could get his breathing under control.
"…Thanks." He offered quietly, grabbing one of the tissues to clean himself up, belatedly realising that he hadn't broken down like that since he'd cried in Sakura's lap in the forest, mere hours after the last of the fighting had died down. "I wasn't…expecting that."
"No problem. Few people escape war unscathed, no matter how 'short' the war may have been." Genma smiled then, a small, bittersweet thing, and rose to his feet. "Word of advice, though? Talk to someone about it. Your mom, a shrink, your teammates – anything's better than bottling it up."
And then he walked back into the kitchen, giving Shikamaru the time to compose himself properly, and Shikamaru found himself grateful.
Still, the option to get himself presentable was stolen from him by the door being yanked open, Sakura, Yuki, and Anko – in a wheelchair, but still – on the other side.
"Shika!" Sakura cheered, flickering into the house and throwing her arms around him like it had been years that they hadn't seen each other, rather than days. "You came-! Wait, you alright?"
She pulled away, though kept her arms around his shoulders, to scrutinise his face, and Shikamaru felt his cheeks warm. Looking away from that assessing gaze, he wormed a hand between them and gently pushed Sakura's face away from him.
"Panic attack." He mumbled, only then noting how hoarse his voice was. "I'm good now, though. What's got you so happy?"
"We borrowed dango-chan from the hospital." Yuki's voice drifted over, and Shikamaru peered over Sakura's shoulder to where the assassin had carried Anko's wheelchair up the stairs while he'd been hug-attacked.
Anko, for her part, looked smug and completely unrepentant.
"…You kidnapped someone from the hospital." Shikamaru summed up dryly, and, as if summoned by the mention of shenanigans, Izumo stuck his head out from the kitchen door.
"Hey, Genma said to leave you alone for a bit, but I- kid!" and then Sakura was being swept up in an exuberant hug and dragged into the kitchen, and Shikamaru could hear the commotion that her appearance caused in the other room.
He exchanged a look with Anko and Yuki. "Are you sure you want to go in there?"
"Free food." They chorused, which had Yuki cackling and Anko smirking tiredly, and Shikamaru wondered just when the two craziest people he knew had the chance to get to know each other.
And whether he'd survive their combined efforts at insanity.
"Fair enough." He acknowledged, then let his shoulders slump and followed Sakura into the room.
Kakashi watched as Sakura swept through the room, greeting everyone enthusiastically, exchanging hugs and kisses on the cheek and noogies – the last one mostly to Kotetsu, since he couldn't exactly escape – where appropriate. He marvelled at the change between the girl he was seeing now, and the unreadable kunoichi he'd watched deliver a report in front of the five kage after the final battle.
It was like looking at two different people.
And then, he had a prime spot to watch how most of the occupants of the room tensed and reached for whatever weapons they had stashed on them when the Terror of the Mist strolled in, pushing a wheelchair with Mitarashi Anko on it into the room like it was a perfectly normal thing to do.
"Wassup, losers." Anko greeted, though it was miles away from her usual snark. "Don't mind the S-Rank assassin, he's being useful as fuck and I'm pretty sure the kids will kill you if you touch him."
"Maybe not kill," Shikamaru hedged, at the same time as Sakura, who'd since grabbed Raido's son and was spinning him around in the air while the child squealed excitedly, said "oh, yeah, definitely."
In the silence that fell, the assassin in question sighed, exasperated though undeniably fond. "Pinky-chan…"
Kakashi reasoned that most of the people in the room had felt that same exasperation towards Sakura at some point, and almost laughed.
"What?" Sakura asked, as if baffled, and stopped spinning in favour of blinking confusedly at Yuki. Then, noticing the mix of expressions directed her way, she smiled sheepishly and swung the child in her arms around so he could sit on her shoulders, while her hands held his shins to make sure he didn't fall off. "Too soon for the morbid humour?"
Genma, who'd remained sitting when Sakura had been greeting everyone and simply watched everything unfold, eyed Yuki and Anko suspiciously. "Is she high?"
"Kid thought it'd be a good idea to 'try' some of Yuki's crazy Kiri energy drink. Got through half the can before we snatched it from her. So basically as good as." Anko explained, and Kakashi found himself speaking before his brain quite caught up to his mouth.
"That stuff is toxic waste." He snorted, earning a razor-sharp grin from the assassin. "Kept me up for 40 hours once. Gai, back me up, you were there."
"Indeed, rival." Gai agreed, laughter in his voice, though Kakashi noted that his friend hadn't relaxed his stance in the slightest, eyes still trained on the assassin-interrogator combo. "But I think you'll find it was closer to 60 hours. Half a can or not, you'll have an interesting couple of days ahead of you, Genma."
"Oh, she's Shikamaru's problem now." Genma replied with a laugh, his arm around Aoba's shoulders, while his other hand pried the senbon Aoba had grabbed at Yuki's appearance and popped it between his teeth, "I'm washing my hands of this mess."
"I feel so loved." Sakura deadpanned, then flashed to Genma's side and plucked the senbon from his mouth, tutting and lobbing it to Yuki. The assassin, for his part, caught it without issue and put it into his holster, then laughed when Sakura smacked the back of Genma's head. "I thought you grew out of this, honestly."
Shikamaru sighed, loud and dramatic, the way only Nara men could be, and walked over to Kakashi's old student, ignoring the guffaws the remark caused.
"Pass me Kei-kun, please?" He requested, and Sakura shot him an odd look, but it spoke to the relationship the two had that she didn't question it, merely transferred the boy from her shoulders to Shikamaru's waiting arms.
The Nara put Kei down, then shot Sakura a look. "I think Eri-san needs a few more things from the market. Why don't you take Yuki and grab them, and I'll smooth over the feathers you just ruffled?"
A blink, a smile, a cheery, "Okay!" and an obnoxious, wet kiss to the cheek later, Sakura and Yuki were gone from the room.
"How long ago did she drink that?" Kotetsu asked warily, staring at the space Sakura had been standing in not two seconds previous.
"About two hours ago." Anko grinned, wheeling herself closer to the table where everyone was sitting. "Yuki had to manually unstick her from the ceiling in my hospital room. I'm surprised she managed a shunshin."
"Peachy." Shikamaru sighed, then grew serious and turned to the people who'd stayed mostly quiet since Sakura, Anko and Yuki's arrival – namely, Gai, Kotetsu, Izumo, and Aoba. "Right. Does anyone actually have something against Yuki staying for dinner?"
"I don't, but I'm surprised Raido doesn't mind having an S-Rank assassin in his house, near his kid." Izumo pointed out, getting an agreeing nod from Gai.
"Did you forget mine and Gen's area of expertise, 'Zumo?" Raido asked with a snort, then shook his head and gestured Eri over until she sat next to him, sending Genma a pointed look until the brunet grumbled but obligingly got up and went to keep an eye on the food. "Besides, I've met him before. He wore Eri's 'Kiss the Cook' apron with Inoichi and Shikaku in the room, let Sakura-chan use him as a footrest, and peeled apples for Kei to eat with an actual peeler-" another pointed glare at Genma, which got a middle finger as a reply, even though Genma's back was turned, "-so I, for one, have no complaints."
"Great." Shikamaru sighed, obviously relieved, and slumped into a chair on Anko's right. "An actual fight would've been so troublesome."
In the startled laughter that followed the incredibly in-character declaration, a high, unexpected voice chimed in.
"You're troublesome." Kei announced, from where he was dangling unceremoniously off Genma's outstretched arm, while Genma tried – ineffectually – to shake him off. "Nee-san says so, so it's true."
"Spilling my secrets so easily, Kei-chan?" Sakura chastised, and Kakashi wasn't the only one who jumped, not having sensed nor heard her and Yuki's return.
The girl didn't seem to have worked off her restless energy in the slightest, because she flickered over to Genma, stole Kei off his arm, shoved the paper bag of shopping into his arms instead, and was perched on Shikamaru's lap in the next two seconds, Kei on her lap in turn.
"I think I have to drop you off with senpai to teach you the value of information." She continued, grinning at Anko's startled wheeze. "Just think, you could've at least gotten a lollipop out of that if you'd played your cards right."
"Free candy?" the boy tilted his head, blinking owlishly, and Sakura definitely had his full attention now.
But, before his old student could pass on some of her questionable wisdom, Raido's wife interfered, snatching the boy from Sakura's lap and sitting him on Raido's instead.
(Kakashi privately mused that the boy was incredibly calm about being treated like a sack of potatoes.)
"You're not teaching my son your sneaky tricks, Sakura-chan." Eri tutted, wagging her finger at Sakura like she was a misbehaving pet.
Sakura, for her part, showed minimal remorse, though that could've been the Kiri toxic waste that was still coursing through her system.
"Come on, Eri-san, someone has to be a menace when I'm gone." She whined, making grabby hands for Kei, "I didn't manage to make Genma go grey, so I have to entrust that role to someone else!"
While most of the room laughed at Sakura's self-imposed challenge, Kakashi was stuck on the first part of her sentence.
"And why would you be 'gone'?" he asked before he could think twice about it, and the laughter around them died down instantly, the other occupants also catching on to what Sakura had said.
For the first time since she arrived, Sakura slowed down enough to actually look a little guilty.
Sakura hadn't planned on telling more people than absolutely necessary about her planned relocation, but it would've been difficult to dodge the question when she'd slipped up so obviously and with such a big audience.
Still, she had enough of her wits about her to twist the truth somewhat – spinning a tale of a long-term mission to establish positive relations, instead of all-but defecting in favour of becoming a kage.
The dinner itself, even after her announcement and the glaring absence of those who hadn't made it through the war, would easily become one of her Top 10 favourite memories. The teasing, the exchanging of stories, the miniature food fights, the, all in all, familial atmosphere – it was almost enough to make her feel like the war and everything that came after had been just a bad dream.
She slipped upstairs after the food had been eaten and even the loudest mouths had quietened, sated by the food and almost dozing, and took the opportunity to just enjoy the moment.
So when Kakashi found her, nestled among the cushions on the window-seat she'd claimed, and leant against the wall next to the window frame, she just smiled.
The resentment that used to simmer beneath her skin whenever she so much as thought of her old sensei was gone. It had been too long for her to still hold on to her grievances of when she was a fresh genin, not to mention that Genma's friendship with the man had also helped smooth over some of her ruffled feathers.
His rejection of her as a student and his dismissal of her potential had hurt, yes, but it had inadvertently set her on the path that led her to being who she was now.
"I take it that's what was missing from your report to the kage?" he asked idly, also staring out the window, pretending like he wasn't just as hyperaware of her as she was of him.
"Thank you for not calling me out on that." She hedged, shooting him a small but amused smile. "I know you knew there were holes in my story."
"Somehow, I feel like there still are." Kakashi sighed, and gave up the pretence of looking out the window in favour of meeting her gaze. "I won't press, but… Will you be safe?"
"Are any of us, really?" she shot back, pushing aside the warmth in her chest at Kakashi's concern. Then, she sighed, deciding that she could afford to tell Kakashi the full truth. So she patted the seat next to her and waited patiently until her old sensei settled across from her, his focus entirely on her.
"Orochimaru saved my life." She began, not seeing much reason to beat around the bush. "I would've bled out long before you arrived if it hadn't been for him."
She let Kakashi absorb that news, waiting until he finally blinked and his rigid posture relaxed into something more natural.
"Before he died, he named me his legacy." She met Kakashi's lone eye, both to drive her point home and to watch his reaction. "He gave me Otogakure."
"…You're not going there as a diplomatic liaison." Kakashi concluded, watching her just as intently as she was watching him. "You're going there as Orochimaru's replacement."
She nodded, and Kakashi just stared.
Long seconds passed, minutes maybe, where they just looked at each other, before he so much as twitched.
And then, bizarrely, he started laughing.
"If I wasn't already grey, this team would've made me so." he managed after he calmed down, and it was Sakura's turn to stare uncomprehendingly. "I start with an avenger, a Hokage-wannabe, and a civilian with perfect chakra control on my team. I end with a kage, a healer, and a lobbyist for minority rights. Tell me, Sakura, who do you think became whom?"
At that description of Team 7, even Sakura had to crack a smile.
"You're not the same person you were when you became our sensei, either." She pointed out teasingly. "What do you think your younger self would've thought of you being happy at a desk-job?"
The inside joke of ANBU Commander being referred to as a 'desk-job' got an eye-crinkle out of Kakashi before he sobered.
"I think my younger self would've struggled with the concept of being happy, Sakura-chan." He shot back, and Sakura winced, though the indirect acknowledgement that he was happy now made her smile.
They fell into silence for a moment, then Kakashi sighed, and when his hand landed on her head, not ruffling her hair like Genma would, just…resting there, she didn't shrug it off.
"Take care of yourself." He told her, and for the first time in a while, she could tell that the eye-smile he directed at her was 100% genuine.
"You too, sensei." She replied, the title an intentional addition, hoping to show without the need for more words that whatever rift had been between them for the last few years, was, at least on her part, forgotten. She saw the moment Kakashi registered the title, and its significance, when shock, then gratitude flickered across what she could see of his face.
The hand on top of her head pressed down lightly, then disappeared, and the shock on Kakashi's face was replaced with mischief.
"Though I still can't believe you got Sasuke to agree to join a pen-pal system." He confessed, and so saying, he walked back down the stairs, leaving a laughing Sakura behind.
If talking honestly with Naruto and Sasuke after so many years had been cathartic, clearing the air with Kakashi left her feeling light as a feather. It was with that realisation in mind that she got back to her feet and headed back downstairs, deciding that she wasn't quite done causing chaos just yet.
Two weeks later, Konoha learned of the identity of their new Hokage, Tsunade officially welcomed in a new Head of the Hospital, and Sakura went in for her operation.
She missed Neji's official inauguration as the Rokudaime as she'd been recovering from her hysterectomy and not really in any shape to be getting out of bed anytime soon, though the gossip from the nurses had assured her that he'd handed himself with appropriate decorum.
(Though the effect had been somewhat ruined when Kiba had, very loudly and very publicly, walked up to their new Hokage the next day and greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. Sakura learnt of that particular story from the nurse who'd been called in to make sure that Hinata hadn't received a concussion when she'd fainted at the sight.)
A week after he was officially sworn in as the Sixth Hokage, and a week and a half after Sakura's operation, she dressed in her standard jounin uniform, ignoring how odd the standard jounin blues felt against her skin, and made her way to the Hokage tower, her hitai-ate the only missing part of her outfit, hidden rather conspicuously in her pocket.
She was let into the waiting room with minimal questions asked, which she wondered at, and when she knocked on the door to Neji's office, she was called to enter by a familiar, if somewhat tired, voice.
The first thing that stood out to her was how at home Neji looked in the official setting of the Hokage's Office.
The second thing was how exhausted he looked, though he hid it well, his usual posture not inhibited in the slightest by the fatigue she could see in his face.
"Ah, Sakura-san." He greeted, somewhat relaxing when he saw her. "I'm glad to see you well."
"Likewise, Hokage-sama." She smiled, finding that the expression wasn't even forced. "Leadership suits you."
To her great surprise, Neji snorted. "Kiba already made it clear I look like death, no need to lie to my face. But there's a lot to do, and until I review the list for assistants and a replacement Council, it's me and Shizune-senpai to deal with all of it, since Tsunade-sama is busy terrorizing the hospital staff."
Sakura blinked, thrown by the unexpectedly casual tone.
"I think I need to send Kiba a gift basket." She mumbled before her brain quite caught up with her, and Neji rolled his eyes, a decidedly un-Hyuuga-like move.
"If it's for 'socialising' me, then Tenten already did." He drawled, and Sakura chuckled. "Now, please don't misunderstand, it's not that I am not happy to see you, but is there anything I can do for you?"
"There is." Sakura agreed, watching his face for a reaction, then added with a wry smile, "But I don't think you're going to like it."
"I owe you for getting me that post of shadowing Shikaku-sama, Sakura, don't think I didn't know that was thanks to you." he eyed her assessingly, the earlier humour wiped clear, the pearly gaze giving away nothing. "What do you want?"
Sakura took a deep breath. Held it for a beat. Straightened her back and squared her shoulders. Let it out.
"I want you to release me from my vows."
Packing up the things she wanted to take with her from her and Genma's apartment had felt strangely…anticlimactic.
Perhaps it was because she was used to keeping her most important belongings in her hammerspace seal. Perhaps it was because Genma insisted on making it abundantly clear that even though she was leaving, she would always have a place with him. Perhaps it was because Yuki had stuck to her side like glue, claiming that Anko would need to get used to life without him as a buffer, and was willing to listen to her random thoughts and ideas about how to put everything she'd learned about Oto from Karin together and make it into a functioning Village. He was even kind enough to offer some of his own insights.
The worst thing, Sakura reflected, when the first month of the two she'd promised Karin had ended, was actually saying goodbye.
Shikamaru and Chojuro had just looked at her like she was an idiot and told her that, as soon as they could, they would follow her, so goodbyes were rather pointless. They then also both made a point of telling her, in no uncertain terms, that they loved her too – 'since they'd left her hanging last time', had been Shikamaru's explanation – and both appeared to enjoy the way she'd turned pinker than her hair.
Genma and Anko had both refused to say the word goodbye, though they'd both hugged her so tightly she worried for her ribs, and both had demanded she visit at least semi-regularly, since she couldn't even cite distance as an excuse due to being literally inextricably tied to Genma's chakra through the Hiraishin.
(if both of them then had to wipe their eyes when she turned to leave, Sakura pretended not to see.)
Izumo and Kotetsu had also made it their goal to crack her ribs, and she actually had to run a check to make sure they hadn't succeeded when they released her. They also gifted her with a brand new naginata, an replica of the weapon she'd used in the third stage of the Chunin Exams which they'd helped train her for, and though her fighting style had long-ago outgrown the naginata, she couldn't help the moisture that gathered in her eyes, especially when Izumo laid a hand on her shoulder and smiled reassuringly.
"Every time you doubt yourself, I want you to look at this and remember just how far you've come from where you started." He told her quietly, Kotetsu nodding by his side. "You're the closest I've found to the definition of a self-made shinobi. If there's anyone who can take the ruins of a madman's lair and build it up to a Village, it's you, kid."
When she merely stared at him, taken aback by the fact he knew, Kotetsu grinned. "Your story was good, but we're the Hokage's assistants, and Tsunade wasn't assigning missions out of the Village at that point, especially not long-term ones. So we pressed Genma until he told us."
"Look after him, please." She begged then, instead of acknowledging their explanation, unable to keep the anxiety from her voice. "I know he's got Aoba now, and Raido's meant to be coming fully back to active duty, but-!"
"-you've spent the last five years in each other's pockets, and while you want to leave and try something different for yourself, you're not sure if you should?" Kotetsu finished for her with a knowing look, and Sakura nodded, surprised.
"Trust us, if there's anyone who knows that feeling, it's us." Izumo reassured her, pushing the naginata into her hands, and moving the hand he had on her shoulder to her head. "And looking after Genma goes without saying. Though I'm curious about what he's gonna do with the empty nest syndrome this time."
"Five thousand yen on you asking him that to his face next time we see him." Kotetsu bet immediately, and Sakura couldn't help the laugh that bubbled up, even if it caused the tears that had gathered at the corners of her eyes to finally spill.
"I'll miss you." she told them honestly, because while they hadn't been a part of her daily routine for a while, every time they did manage to catch up, it never felt like any time had passed since the last time.
"That's a given." Kotetsu grinned, dodging the smack Izumo aimed at the back of his head without so much as a glance, so Izumo gave up and smiled at Sakura instead. "Go blow them away, kiddo."
And then, a month and a week since she'd returned to the Village, Sakura was at the newly-rebuilt Main Gates at daybreak, Yuki by her side.
"Where to, oh Otokage-sama?" Yuki asked, staring out into the forest stretching before them, a hint of a grin playing around his lips.
"First? Kiri." At his surprised look, Sakura laughed. "I've got a date with the scary Kiri shrink you promised me years back, and I'll probably make Mei hate me, but it's the first order of business."
"Alright then. Lead the way." And Yuki held out his arm, but instead of grasping it, Sakura caught his hand, twining their fingers, and let the whirl of Hiraishin take them away.
The last thing she saw of Konoha was the sun breaking through the clouds above the Village, though its light was eclipsed by the brightness of Yuki's grin at her side.
Mei didn't sense them when they arrived, but it would've been difficult to miss their presence in the Village given the way the genin who came for their daily mission assignment were gossiping, or the fact that they once again made a scene about Yoshirō, apparently mere minutes after arriving and finding the boy at the market.
Still, Mei expected that they would make themselves known to her soon enough.
She wasn't wrong.
Three days after arriving to the Mist, Sakura and Yuki stood before her, appearing perfectly at ease, though Mei wasn't sure how much she trusted that. She long-since learned that trying to read Yuki was a fool's errand, and Sakura had proved that even the combined pressure of all five kage before her wasn't enough to shake her composure.
Twenty minutes after their arrival in her office, Mei also learned of the part of the story that had been missing from Sakura's official report to the five kage, and now she understood even less about the girl standing before her.
"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan, but I don't understand." Mei sighed, her chin in her hand as she scrutinised the girl standing on the other side of her desk, one of her best assassins at her side like a loyal lapdog. "You're an accomplished jounin, you have renown now, a name amongst the kage, and you would throw it all away for a leaderless ruin of a land? Is the misguided dream of a madman really worth all this effort?"
"Yes." The girl replied, not a hint of hesitation in her voice, and a part of Mei admired that, while another shivered.
That steel spine wasn't new, she'd seen it even in that first fateful meeting when a baby-faced chunin had looked her in the eye and told her that her country was on a downwards spiral straight to ruin. But the cold confidence in Sakura's gaze was new; that readiness to do whatever was needed for her goal, and Mei knew that it was a direct result of the war, and what she'd done during that final battle.
Still, she could honestly admit that the change unsettled her.
But Sakura kept talking; "I trust you, as I trust Neji or Gaara. But I trust you all personally. I don't trust the system you're all embroiled in. The system is flawed; it needs to be broken down and put back together, but that takes years."
Did she realise she was talking of revolution?
"And, well," here, the girl smiled humourlessly, "you said it yourself; Oto is a 'leaderless ruin of a land' – the 'breaking' part is already over. Now, they stand before the opportunity to build it back up, and do it right this time. That's why I'm willing to 'throw it all away', Mei-sama. I want to be part of that change."
"There's more, isn't there." Mei asked, but her tone made it clear it wasn't a question. "While we've got a good working relationship and I appreciate the courtesy call, you have no reason for it unless you want something from me."
"You're right." Sakura agreed, again with that same shameless, unwavering conviction.
She took a deep breath, as if steeling herself, though her expression remained open, but unreadable. When she spoke, it was with an edge of caution in her words.
"Years ago, after I saved Chojuro that first time, you promised that if I ever needed anything, I could come to you and it would be given."
Mei fought the urge to shift anxiously. She distantly remembered having written something of the sort, as a relieved footnote in her missive to Tsunade about agreeing to the terms of trade in the deal of Kubikiribocho for Ao's Byakugan.
She didn't think the Hokage would read her hasty promise – born of weeks of worry and then bone-crushing relief and the general emotional whirlwind that the Suna diplomatic mission had caused – out loud to one of her subjects, though.
Nor did she think that said subject would remember the unspoken IOU years after the fact and come to collect it.
"What is it." She knew that her tone was flatter than the deserts of the Land of Wind, but the girl standing before her had proven herself to be as viciously opportunistic as a shark that smelled blood in the water, and Mei was suddenly the sole focus of that sharp gaze.
"I would like to take Yuki with me."
Mei paused. Blinked. Looked at the assassin in question in disbelief, but he just shrugged, a carefully-neutral expression on his face.
Sakura met her eyes, a small, wry smile on her face, and her next words stunned Mei.
"Because I trust him. And I know he has no ulterior motives."
In the silence that fell at that announcement, Yuki's cultivated neutrality broke for a second, a wealth of emotion packed into the single look he sent the girl at her simple words, and Mei knew she'd lost the battle before she even truly tried to fight in it.
But then, Sakura continued.
"Not forever. Two years, if you permit it, maybe three. I should also be able to steer Hozuki Suigetsu to you, so it could be a trade, if you will. You get Suigetsu, for however long he opts to stay, and in exchange, allow Yuki to stay with me however long he may want."
A trade. Not for the first time, Mei wondered when this callousness appeared in the young ambassador. And how had nobody noticed it earlier?
"And Chojuro?" Mei asked when she finally found her voice.
Sakura's face softened, the earlier wry smile tinging into something more melancholy.
"I know how much you care for him; I would not ask you to give him over." Sakura told her gently, far more considerate than Mei had expected. "I only ask that if he ever comes to you asking to be allowed to join me, you do not deny him outright."
The sly little-!
"I also know that the trade agreement you signed with the Sound daimyo still holds." Sakura interrupted Mei's indignant rant. "Once I've been sworn in and enough time has elapsed for you to be able to see for yourself that Otogakure's economy can pull its own weight, I would like to ratify those trade agreements and seek the same alliances I sought on behalf of Konoha all those years ago."
"Would you give us a moment? I'd like to talk with Yuki, privately." Mei requested, though the stress she put on the last word made it clear that it was a request only in name.
But if Sakura noticed, she didn't comment, merely nodded and quietly took her leave, and when the door closed behind her, Mei pinned her hunter-nin with a sharp look and gestured to the chair.
"Are you being manipulated?" She asked as soon as Yuki was settled, and she would've celebrated the choked double-take the assassin did at her question, had the circumstances been any less dire.
"Excuse me?" Yuki choked out, looking vaguely concerned. "Mei-sama, what…?"
"Do you want to go with her? Are you being given a choice?"
"I- it's pinky-chan, Mei-sama, of course I am." There was real concern in the assassin's eyes now, but Mei wasn't comforted.
Instead, she reached over her desk till her hand rested on Yuki's shoulder, and sent a sharp, short jolt of her own chakra into his system, breaking any genjutsu he may have been under.
Yuki bypassed concern and shifted straight into suspicion.
"What's going on, Mei-sama?" he demanded, his earlier good-humour gone, replaced with a very, very rare tinge of fear.
But all Mei could do was sag in her seat, not sure whether she was comforted by the fact that Yuki was acting out of his own accord, or annoyed for letting her paranoia get to her.
"I had to be sure." She murmured, sending the assassin a tired look. "You weren't in that kage meeting, Yuki. You wouldn't be so surprised if you'd been there, if you'd heard what she'd done during that final battle."
She got a raised eyebrow in response, and the suspicion in Yuki's eyes didn't abate in the slightest.
"Sakura told me about the battle." He offered slowly, clearly not understanding Mei's angle, and she smiled humourlessly.
"Did she now?" she asked idly. "And did she tell you that she designed a piece of fuinjutsu powerful enough to seal the most powerful dojutsu in the world? Did she tell you that she managed to – mid-battle, at that – psychologically manipulate a man who'd convinced the world at large that he was Uchiha Madara into losing his temper and, essentially, forgetting that he wielded the power of the Sage in favour of a bar-brawl? Or maybe she told you that, despite having a Bingo Book entry in all the major Nations since she was thirteen years old, five years later, nobody actually knew exactly what it is she does?"
Yuki blinked, absorbing her words. Then, he smiled wryly.
"She may have forgotten about the last part." he announced, but before Mei could say anything, he continued. "But, Mei-sama, with all due respect, that's not news to me. I've had regular enough dealings with pin- with Sakura over the years – both on the training field, and off – that I saw the changes as they happened. There's a lot of work behind that insane story that people simply didn't see. They just saw the end-product and panicked. She's an assassin, working in the shadows comes with the territory. But she's a good kid."
At Mei's graceless, disbelieving snort, he inclined his head, his smile turning a bit more amused. "A scary one, I'll give you that, but a good one."
Mei took a few seconds to simply look at her best hunter-nin, to see the truth in his eyes, the unusual warmth nobody would expect from the man who'd earned the moniker of 'Terror' before he grew out of teenage acne.
"You want to go with her, don't you?"
Yuki sighed, the humour evaporating.
"I do. Like she said, for just the first year or two. But," and here, he smiled wryly, and inclined his head, "before I am a person with wants and wishes, I am a shinobi. I am your shinobi, Mei-sama. My fate is, ultimately, in your hands."
Mei scoffed, but her heart was lighter.
"Don't be so dramatic. Yes, you can go." But before Yuki could get up and call Sakura back to the room, Mei added. "Two years, Yuki. Two years from today, I expect you back in this office and ready to resume your duties as my shinobi. And I better get Suigetsu out of this."
She was gifted with the biggest, brightest smile she'd ever seen from the notorious assassin.
"Thank you, Mei-sama. I'll make sure the terms of the treaty you're offered reflect our gratitude."
Mei waved him off and smiled as he all-but ran out of her office, and placed her chin on her hand again, wondering.
Was being a good person worth being a bad kage?
A week later, she had her answer.
Her predecessor's son stood in her office, all of ten years old and freshly a genin, his hands laced demurely behind his back and his smile pleasantly warm, while the look in his eyes was that of cold satisfaction.
Mei glanced down at the forms on her desk and felt that seldom-felt flash of white-hot rage at what she saw.
The form on top was unexpected, but not surprising, considering who it was that stood before her; Termination of citizenship. Underneath it, though, was the form that made Mei's blood boil:
Adoption confirmation, signed in careful, unmistakeable penmanship; Shiranui Sakura.
And she could do little but sign her approval underneath it and accept Yoshirō's shiny, unblemished, barely month-old headband when he held it out to her.
"Thank you, Mizukage-sama. My 'mother' sends her regards."
And that had been that.
Travelling from Kiri to Oto had been more difficult than from Konoha to Kiri. Not just because Sakura didn't want to go through Konoha this time, but also because of who they'd picked up along the way.
Truth be told, travelling through the Land of Whirpools with Sakura and the Yondaime's ten-year-old bastard son was one of the most bizarre things Yuki had ever done, and he'd been a shinobi for over two decades.
Although it had to be said, even with Yuki's brief interactions with the kid, it had to be said that Yoshirō bloomed when he realised that Sakura was serious about the adoption, and that yes, he could keep calling her 'nee-chan', and that no, he never had to go back to Kiri if he didn't want to.
The unbridled joy on his face when he gazed upon the ruins of Uzushio, the childish excitement when Sakura had spread out her sleeping bag and patted the spot on the ground next to her, the wondrous smile when she didn't mind the way water began to dance around the boy when he got too excited, despite his attempts to control it; it all served to make even Yuki smile fondly, so he could excuse the way Sakura was so hopelessly soft on the boy.
He did, however, press her as to her motivations one night, when Yoshiro was sleeping, and discovered, in hushed whispers and stuttering breaths, why he hadn't been able to find Sakura for over a week around the time of the Rokudaime's inauguration.
"I know it's selfish." Sakura mumbled into his shoulder when he'd pulled her into a hug despite the fact that they were both laying down and tangled in their respective sleeping bags, "And I know that it probably won't be the stable home-life he's dreaming of. But finding him in the market dealing with the same shit he's been dealing with since he was a kid, I couldn't just leave him. I'm sorry, but-!"
"-but nothing." Yuki cut her off, tone certain, leaving no room for argument. "You've been fighting for the kid since before you even knew who he was – he'd have begged to come with you if you hadn't offered. Taking the official route and adopting him might've pissed Mei off, but nobody will be able to contest that you care for the kid's wellbeing."
"Plus," he added, making his voice a little lighter and gently poking Sakura's side, "if you play your cards right, you'll have a ready-made successor just waiting for you to get bored of ruling."
Sakura laughed, slapped the hand he'd used to poke her, and rolled onto her back.
And that had been that.
Three days later, they stood in the middle of a field Kiyohime had led them to, a field Sakura recognised as the place where that final, fateful battle had unfolded, though, looking around, she couldn't see even a hint of a Village around, despite Kiyohime's insistence.
"Something's weird, nee-chan." Yoshio commented, sticking closer to her side, and she wrapped an arm around his shoulder in comfort and spread out her chakra sense.
"Genjutsu." Her and Yuki said at the same time, exchanging a curious look. An area-effect genjutsu on this scale...?
"Took you long enough. I thought you were supposed to be a genjutsu mistress?"
Between one blink and the next, the illusion dropped, and Karin suddenly appeared in front of them, leaning against one of the trees on the edges of the Village, little Chairo Sakura had sent a few hours earlier to announce their arrival curled around her shoulders.
What she could see of Otogakure wasn't actually the wreck and ruin Sakura had expected. In fact, it almost looked like some rebuilding efforts had begun in the two months since she'd last been here, as there was minimal rubble in the streets, and it was a lot harder than she thought it would be to spot the parts of the Village that she knew had been levelled by the battles between the reincarnated jinchuuriki, Obito's Rinnegan, and Orochimaru's transformation into a giant snake .
"What did you expect?" Karin demanded, cocking an eyebrow, hand on her hip. "That we'd just sit here twiddling our thumbs and wait for our little Leaf saviour to appear?"
"Your updates didn't sound particularly promising." Sakura defended, scowling at Karin's snort even as Yuki chuckled beside her.
"Well?" the redhead asked, gesturing towards the outskirts of the Village Sakura was soon to be the leader of. "Ready to see your legacy?"
With one of her arms around Yoshiro's shoulders, the other looped through Yuki's, Sakura took a deep breath and slowly let it out, then straightened her back and nodded, steeling herself.