[I can hardly speak, and when I try, it's nothing but a squeak.]
The letters keep coming. Sakura keeps ignoring them.
He knows about the letters. Sakura won't say anything to him, but the council does.
They've reached out to her several times now, they tell him, making her a very generous offer to which she can't even be bothered to respond. As if somehow she's the one being rude. She declines, he tells them. Quit wasting ink. He intends to offer her a six-month extension on her contract anyway. Collectively, they frown, and tell him they strongly advise against that. Their advice is noted, he tells them, and gets up to leave. They implore him to think about what's best for the village.
He can feel his patience swiftly deteriorating.
This is what's best for the village, he tells them. The longer she stays, the more they can learn from her. The more lives she will save. They insist that his father worked for years to strengthen Suna as an independent nation — that he would never have wanted the village to become so dependent on foreign shinobi. The last vestiges of his calm crumble away.
His father, he tells them, had bred him — his own son — to be a human weapon. And when that hadn't worked out, his father had sent assassins after him. He'd been a toddler. And when that hadn't worked out because he'd killed the assassins, his father had made a pact with a war criminal, forsaken their alliance with Leaf, and wound up dead for his troubles. What his father wanted, he tells them, is irrelevant and will never factor into any of his decisions regarding what's best for this village.
"Kazekage-sama," they say, stopping him on his way out the council chamber door. "If she doesn't accept our offer, and you choose not to renegotiate her contract with Konoha, we may be forced to take this matter to Konoha on your behalf."
He stands in the doorway for a long moment, collecting not his thoughts, but his temper. He had always assumed — or perhaps hoped — the irrational rage that had often consumed him as a child had belonged to Shukaku, and, when the Bijuu had been extracted from him, that he would be free of the anger as well. This hadn't been the case. The hate had been his all along. Shukaku had simply fed it. And not allowing it to run rampant, as he had as a child and often finds himself wishing he still could, is a skill he is still perfecting. Sand draws from the corners of the room and rises up at his feet.
"Write to Konoha's council if you want," he says at last, without turning to address them. "But, make it clear that you're doing so at your own behest, not mine."
And then he's gone.
If Sakura senses his foul mood when she comes home that night, she says nothing. He's sitting out on the balcony, trying to remind himself that he's supposed to have changed — that killing people when he's angry is not an acceptable reaction — when she emerges barefoot from the bedroom and climbs wordlessly into his lap, leaning back against his chest and tilting her head to kiss the underside of his jaw.
He knows about her arguments with his brother. She'd yet to say anything — likely because she didn't want to upset him — but, the day after the hospital had called him to come sign her discharge paperwork, Kankurou had cornered him in his office and proceeded to unleash two months' worth of pent up misgivings about his decision to pursue a relationship with her, none of which really made sense to Gaara. But he'd listened with a straight face, and when Kankurou was finished, he'd thanked him for his honesty and his concern. Kankurou had just stared at him, dumbfounded, for a long moment, before sighing in defeat. Confused, Gaara had asked if there were something else he ought to say. Kankurou hadn't been able to come up with anything, and the brothers had simply stood in uncomfortable silence until Kankurou finally mumbled something that sounded like an apology and promptly taken his leave. That had been nearly two weeks ago, and to his own shame, on the few occasions he'd seen Kankurou since, Gaara still hadn't been able to think of anything to say.
After a moment, he wraps his arms around her middle and buries his face in her hair, and thinks back to what he'd told Kankurou before.
She knows me, I think.
Kankurou hadn't seemed so sure.
"Everything alright?" He hears her ask.
He doesn't know how to tell her that a few hours earlier he seriously entertained the idea of killing his council if it would put an end to the political meddling so he could just have her — how there are times when he would raze the entire village just to be alone with her.
"I'm not sure," he murmurs.
He feels her gently lay a hand on his arm.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
How can he ever tell her?
She doesn't protest when he gathers her in his arms and carries her back into the bedroom.
"When I was six years old, I wanted to die."
The words cement themselves in her brain. She should have known.
"You can't mean that."
She doesn't know why she lies, because after the months she's spent with him, she has no doubt that he does. Still, she reaches across the bed and lays a hand on his chest, eyes wide and horrified, as if the admission actually surprises her. Once, the darkness in his eyes would have frightened her — now, it only makes her heart constrict in her chest. The pain is crippling.
She expects him to say something, to pull her closer, to gently lay his hand over hers as reassurance, but he simply stares at her, both arms tucked back behind his head.
"Why?" She asks after a moment of silence, unsure she honestly wants to know, barely able to breathe for the pain in her chest.
He goes on staring at her, unflinching.
"My father tried to have me killed for the first time."
Her heart seizes, and as Kankurou's words surface from the recesses of her brain, she finds she feels the same way she had two weeks ago, going into V-fib in the hospital. She'd done that to herself, and now wonders if she hadn't somehow chosen this, too.
People have been trying to kill my brother since he was six years old.
She swallows hard, trying desperately to relieve the tightness in her chest.
"Kankurou told me," she says, even though it's not quite the truth, but it's all she can manage before her voice breaks.
Gaara's expression doesn't change. "Did he also tell you that my father chose my mother's brother for the task?"
Sakura can feel her heartbeat in her brain. It's enough to make her want to be sick, but Gaara carries on without notice.
"He was a member of the Anbu Black Ops, so I couldn't see his face."
She wants him to stop. Her chest feels as though it's about to burst. The pain is excruciating — worse than V-fib, worse than a sword in her belly, worse than the day Sasuke had walked away, worse than the day she'd left Kakashi.
But he isn't done yet. "He was the only person to have ever loved me," he says, his voice unwavering.
"What happened to him?" She whispers, even though she's sure she already knows the answer.
"I killed him without even knowing who he was."
As the urge to vomit rises in her throat, she thinks Naruto could have never prepared her for this.
"As he was dying, he told me he had never loved me — that he hated me for killing his sister," he continues, his eyes still fixed on her. "That my mother had hated me as well."
"Why?" She cries, overwhelmed by the pain in her chest. "You were just a child."
At last, he looks away, shifting back to stare up the ceiling and drawing one hand from behind his head.
"A self-loving demon," he says, touching his fingers to the blood tattoo on his forehead, staring off into the darkness. "That's what she had named me for. I was meant to be her curse upon the village for what it had done to her."
She fists her hand on his chest, suddenly angrier than she can remember being in years. Unable to stand it, she pulls herself against him, shoving his hand away from his browline before taking his face in her hands and pressing a hard kiss to the scarred kanji.
"I spent years believing that," he tells her, his voice softening and breaking, "not knowing that it was a lie constructed by my father."
Before she realizes it, her hands are soaked.
To her detriment, Sakura has always had a fondness for broken things.
She knows it's a mistake to pull away so she can see his face, but she does it anyway, her heart rending when she finds his eyes squeezed shut, his teeth ground together, and tears pouring down his face. Not knowing what else she can do, she pulls him into her, cradling him against her chest as he sobs, his tears hot on her skin, and wonders what she's supposed to do now.
Friday afternoon, Sakura realizes her mistake in ignoring the letters.
It's just after lunch and she has one eye pressed to a microscope when she hears the door to the lab slide open. She doesn't bother to look up from her work, assuming it's only Kankurou coming back from the cafeteria, since she rarely notices when he comes and goes anymore, on account of him still refusing to speak to her. But, then she hears him yelp in surprise from the other side of the room and scramble out of his chair, and, realizing he's still here, wonders who's just walked in, and what Kankurou's spilled this time.
Or maybe he's not spilled anything.
Sakura whips around in her seat, swiveling past Kankurou standing at attention, and is simultaneously horrified and overjoyed to find Kakashi — dressed in his infantry uniform instead of his robes because he never could be bothered to wear them at home either — standing in the doorway, smiling at her beneath his mask. The greeting drops from her lips before she even has a chance to stop and consider it.
Kankurou's face immediately twists and she thinks he didn't even look so disgusted when she admitted to sleeping with his brother. It annoys her.
"You still call him that?" He asks, revolted.
Sakura all but snarls at him, opening her mouth to tell him exactly where he can fuck off to, but then Kakashi laughs. She recognizes that laugh. She'd heard it constantly as a child, because that was how often he'd been forced to pry Sasuke and Naruto from each other's throats. She can picture his expression even before she looks back over at him: the awkward smile, head tilted, hands stuffed in his pockets. The actual sight of it makes her chest hurt.
"Kankurou-kun," he says, that familiar lilt in his voice, "would you mind if I talked with my assistant privately for a moment?"
Kankurou's face pales — after eighteen years of living with Gaara, she can only assume he knows a thinly veiled threat when he hears one. "S-sure," he stammers, abandoning whatever he'd been working on and collecting his things.
Kakashi is still smiling, and if she didn't know what he looked like when he was feeling particularly pleased with himself, she might think he felt a bit guilty for kicking Kankurou out of his own lab. Kankurou, on the other hand, looks like a kicked puppy, casting a disappointed glance at Sakura before ducking his head and shuffling out of the lab, making sure to give Kakashi a wide berth as he slips out the door.
She stares at him for a long moment, her smile knowing. "That wasn't very nice, Kakashi."
He gives a good-natured shrug. "Oh, I'm sure he'll recover."
She frowns ever-so-slightly as he strolls over to her workstation, hands still in his pockets. "You might have let me know you were coming," she tells him.
He quirks his head, leaning back against the counter beside her. "Hm, I could have sworn I wrote you last week."
Sakura feels the blood drain from her face, but Kakashi only smiles.
"The Suna council told me you'd been ignoring their letters," he says.
She stares up at him, suddenly feeling very stupid. "That's why you're here."
He nodes pleasantly, his expression still cheerful. "They asked if I would come check in on you. They tell me you've been causing quite a fuss since you arrived."
Sakura's face darkens. "And you believe them?"
Kakashi chuckles lightly and goes on smiling at her. "Not for a second. I told them you were my best student. Unfortunately, they insisted."
Sakura knows exactly where this conversation headed, but still can't help but laugh at him. "You shouldn't lie to our allied councils, Kakashi."
"It's true," he insists. "You were my best student."
"Yes, right behind Sasuke and Naruto," she says, recognizing that familiar glimmer in his dark eyes.
"Hardly," he replies. "Neither Sasuke or Naruto were willing to have sex with me."
She'd walked straight into that one, but punches him in the arm anyway, fighting not to smile when he groans. "You're lucky I pulled most of my chakra from that one," she tells him.
"That's no way to treat your poor old teacher," he whines. "I think you've broken it."
"Not a chance. If you were that old and fragile, Naruto would have forcibly removed you from office."
"I wish the council would let me retire."
"It's barely been a year, Kakashi."
"It's awful, Sakura. None of the other assistants will do my paperwork. The stacks have gotten so tall I can barely see out the window. I'll suffocate before long."
"Well, you'll have to muddle through somehow," she tells him. "I can't come home yet."
He regards her curiously. "Can't? Or won't?"
She'd walked straight into that one, too. She curses him for knowing her so well, and herself for for being stupid enough to think that would have changed after only three months. She bites her lip and stares at the floor.
"They told you, then," she says.
"They did," he affirms, his voice softening. "I wanted to see if it was true."
When she says nothing, he waits a moment, then presses her again.
She suddenly, desperately wishes she could be anywhere else, and whatever foolish part of her that had completely discounted the idea that she might ever have to have this conversation with Kakashi has apparently won out over her frustration and anger because when she snaps her head up, fully prepared to rip into him for coming all this way just to scold her for who she's sleeping with when they aren't even together anymore, she starts crying instead.
"It's nobody else's business," she insists, swiping at her eyes. "Not the Suna council, not the Konoha council, and not yours."
She expects him to sigh, to frown at her, to place his hand on her shoulder and gently chastise her for being too naive, for not thinking more carefully about her decisions — the way he had when she was a child, more concerned with winning the affection of a stupid boy than her training. But, he does none of those things. Instead, she watches as he reaches up and pulls his mask down over his chin, and she finds that he's smiling — the same way he'd smiled at her last year, when she'd told him it was over. Then, slowly, he shifts and holds out his arms. She doesn't need to be asked twice. Without thinking, she throws herself out of her chair and against his chest, hugging him as tightly as she knows how without cracking his ribs.
"You've always had terrible taste in men," he tells her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
She half-laughs, half-sobs into the front of his jacket. "I know." Then, after a moment, "You're not angry?"
"Well, I'm certainly not thrilled to have humped it three days across the desert to find out that the woman I love is in love with another man, but I gave up my right to be angry when I made the asinine decision to spend the rest of my life with my ghosts instead of spending it with you. Gaara is evidently much smarter than I am."
She feels his lips against her hair as he kisses the top of her head.
"I'm sorry things didn't work out differently, Sakura-chan," he whispers.
Her eyes burn and her throat constricts as she tries to blink back her tears. The tightness in her chest is unbearable.
"Me, too, Kaka-sensei."
Eventually, after thoroughly snotting up the front of Kakashi's flak jacket, then insisting on scrubbing it clean, she asks him what he plans to tell Suna's council.
"Well, they want me to revise the contract for a different medic, and take you back to Konoha."
She pauses scrubbing the front of his vest, and glances back at him warily over her shoulder to find him leaning up against the steel-top table in the middle of the lab, regarding her seriously.
"Will you?" She asks in a quiet voice.
Kakashi shrugs. "Personally, I think it'd be a colossal waste of everyone's time and money, but I can see how your relationship with Gaara might be a conflict of interest because Suna is so horribly archaic and relies on good old-fashioned nepotism when appointing a new Kazekage — unless it was just me you didn't want to have children with."
Sakura glowers at him. "You didn't want kids either, Kaka-sensei."
"And, I still don't," he says cheerily. "But, it's expected of Gaara, so it only makes sense that his council doesn't approve of him pursuing a relationship with a kunoichi from another village that will never result in children."
"Gaara is trying to change that," she says. "He wants it to be an electoral system, like ours."
Kakashi's face is skeptical, even with his mask pulled back up over his nose. "He's going to have a hard time. This is the way things have been done since the village was founded before the first war. The elders won't agree to that kind of change easily."
She stares at him for a long moment, her expression resigned. "Are you going to make me come home?"
To her surprise, Kakashi laughs. "Sakura, even when you were twelve, I could never make you do anything. I don't expect to be able to start now."
She wants to laugh, but can't seem to make herself.
"So, what happens now, then?" She asks.
Kakashi shrugs again. "That's really up to you, Sakura. Gaara wants to extend your contract here an additional six months, but I'm afraid that will only create more problems for you. Personally — and this is just my opinion, so you can kindly tell me to go hell if you don't like it — I think it might be best for you to come home, and take some time to really consider what it would mean to have a functional relationship with Gaara, though I'm sure some part of you already knows."
She turns back to the sink, staring down at the damp front of Kakashi's vest. He's right, she thinks. She does know. She's known all along. And somehow, it's still not a choice she's ready to make.
She peers back over at him, face flushed, embarrassed by what she's about to ask.
"Earlier," she says quietly, "you said I loved him."
He quirks a single white eyebrow. "Don't you?"
Her gaze flickers between his face and the floor, and for the first time since she arrived here, she wonders if she hasn't made all the wrong choices. "I'm not sure yet."
Kakashi regards her sternly, arms folded across his chest. "Sakura, I've only seen you as upset as you were earlier on two occasions: when people criticized you for waiting on Sasuke, and when people criticized you for being involved with me."
She has to force herself to smile, knowing he means to comfort her, because somehow, his words only make her feel worse.
When I was six years old, I wanted to die.
A/N: Only two parts left. Probably. Also, Gaara might be best boi, but Kakashi is daddy.