Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Naruto and all characters are property of Masashi Kishimoto.
Chapter 1: Mercy Misses You.
"What was that sound?"
As Kakashi's heavy eyelids drew open, the fluorescent white-green light seared into his unfocused gaze like a shot of lightning. Wanting to lift his hand to shield his eyes, he found something wrapped around his bicep, preventing his frail attempts to cover his face. The awareness of injury and immobility struck him as images and feelings plucked painfully at his slowly awakening memory.
The bed he was in felt cold; the frigid air made his skin tingle and hurt. A soft blanket covered his aching limbs - too heavy, yet too light. He couldn't stop shivering.
Again, Kakashi tugged in vain at what felt like cool strings on his forearm. A dull ache filled his body, though exacerbated in the extreme by any sort of movement. Even stretching his feet or weakly curling his fingers produced markedly more pain than expected. Light fear tightened his chest as he realized he was unable to make a fist.
"Lie still, Kakashi." Tsunade's calm voice floated in from somewhere nearby. A warm hand flexed gingerly against his bare chest, gently trying to ease him.
"It's bright," he mouthed, his parched throat preventing audible sounds. He squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head - a small attempt at escape. The sharingan felt like someone had shoved a senbon through it, and was still turning it like a screw.
"Shizune, turn off the lights and pull the curtain," Tsunade commanded before her voice turned soft again. "Kakashi, don't try to talk right now. Just lie still."
"Where?" he managed in a whisper.
The light overhead flicked off, eliminating the annoying hum and intrusive brightness. Then the metallic slide of the curtain hangers over the rod bore into Kakashi's aching head. A simple electronic beat was keeping time beside him on the opposite side of Tsunade, and the thick scent of sterility filled his uncovered nose. Realization came like a freight train.
Slowly the grim visions came rushing back with the terrible understanding of why he was there, in that hard cold bed, with medical staff surrounding him. All the horrific circumstances that led up to that moment flooded back into his brain. His eyes shot open to stare blankly at the pattern on the ceiling tiles.
"We'll talk later - when you're stronger," Tsunade mumbled sadly.
He turned his head to look at her as she backed up a step from the bed. But even in the dimly lit room, and from that distance, he could see the fear in her eyes. Kakashi didn't really want to relive it and obviously she didn't want to make him.
"How long?" The breathy whisper passed over his lips as he made no attempt to mask his shock. The uncommon heaviness of his weak body and the hunger spiking in his stomach told him he'd been there more than a day or two.
Tsunade fidgeted and looked at the metal railing at the side of his bed. In all his years, Kakashi had never seen her fidget - not once. Seeing her face and disposition lacking the tough exterior she was known for suddenly made him wary of the answer. He could see the movement in her throat as she forcefully composed herself to respond.
"Twenty-three days," she breathed.
The immediacy of the nauseated feeling in Kakashi's stomach and the tightening in his throat told him he'd already known it was going to be bad, but not like this.
He desperately wanted to ask if anyone else had made it, but his mind already knew that the answer was no.
Sakura – Chan,
I'm sorry I didn't write sooner. I've been taking more missions since we lost all those elites a month ago. But I finally have some good news. Kakashi woke up three days ago. He's not really himself though. He's thinner and doesn't want to talk to anyone. I've never seen him like this. It's kind of hard to watch. Tsunade is worried about him too. She's not letting him out of the hospital yet. He's always bounced back so fast, but considering what happened, I think it will be a long while for him.
How are things at the border? We miss you here. Your last letter was short so I worry about you as well. It's been almost three years now. When are you coming home?
I went to Sasuke's grave today and thought of you. Tsunade was there at Dan's grave and we talked. She misses you too. I know your work is important but there is always work here. Please don't hate me for mentioning this again but you need to put it in the past and continue your life here at home.
I get asked about you a lot. You must not write to anyone else.
I go by your home sometimes. The complex just sits empty and it seems like a waste.
I'll keep you updated on our favorite copy-ninja. Don't take too long to write back and maybe make it a little longer this time.
I miss you.
"Who are you writing to?" Hinata asked from the doorway of Naruto's study.
"What are you doing up?" Naruto smiled at her and stood up from his desk to move to where she was casually leaning. He always got lost in the pearly eyes and graceful smile he'd fallen madly in love with years before. He slid his arms her around her waist and pulled her close for a tender kiss before sighing. "Another letter for Sakura."
"Do you think she'll ever come back?" Hinata laid her head on Naruto's shoulder, pressing her forehead against his throat in the spot that belonged to only her.
"I don't know. It's been almost three years and her letters always say the same thing - that she doesn't know when she's coming back." He brushed his lips over her temple as his arms tightened.
"Come back to bed," Hinata said softly, her hands sliding up over his shoulders to play with his hair. She never had to ask him twice.
"I'm ready to leave," Kakashi said evenly as he threw a stoney glance at Tsunade. He sat in the hard blue chair in the corner of his hospital room, which had become is favorite place as of late. He turned his head back to the dusty window where he seemed to keep vigil most days, his chin perpetually resting on his uncooperatively shaking fist.
"I don't think you are. Have you eaten anything today?" Tsunade raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, frustrated. "The nurses tell me your tray is full when they pick it up."
"I'm not unwell." Kakashi shrugged diffidently. "You can't keep me here forever."
Tsunade wasn't oblivious to the miserable, worn-out look in his eyes. Remaining in the hospital wasn't really improving him. If he didn't wish for help on his own, she couldn't force it on him. On the surface, he appeared healed. And he was a thirty-six year old ninja for goodness sake - she couldn't treat him as a child and hold him against his will, could she?
"You're right, Kakashi, I can't. Go home then. But until you look better, I won't send you on any missions." Defeated, Tsunade shuffled slowly back to the door. Reasoning with him just didn't work and she needed to go before she got angry. "And I'll be having someone check in on you periodically."
"Fine," he rumbled to his transparent likeness again, his listless gaze taking in nothing.
The Hokage stopped at the door, her fingernails digging into her palms. She felt the compassion she had for his situation sitting in her stomach like a brick but he could infuriate her faster than anyone else lately. Resting her hand on cool doorknob, she made a last effort to reach him. "Kakashi, if you ever need to talk, please come to me anytime. I've seen your look on other men. You have to find an outlet or it'll consume you."
"Hm," he made a soft acknowledgement, still watching the trees swaying with the warm Konoha breeze through the glass pane.
So with a shake of her head, Tsunade left.
As the door closed lightly, Kakashi felt the blinding relief of being alone slacken his posture. The ubiquitous ache in his chest felt hollow and empty, but it was nothing he hadn't felt in the past. Perhaps it was always there and he just felt it more acutely at the roughest of times.
The worst part about all Tsunade's mothering was that now he would have to be checked on like a child to be sure he was eating, sleeping and he supposed, living. In all the years of loss and recovery, he'd never been subjected so such measures. What did they think he was going to do?
For a long time, Kakashi remained in the blue chair and contemplated that, only the steady tick of the clock to keep him company.
But within the hour after the Hokage had left, Kakashi pushed himself from the chair, packed up his few belongings, and made a triumphant exit. Indolently he shuffled his way along the shiny, immaculate floors of the hospital, passing by the smiling nurses and pacing medics. The usual black shirt hung on his light frame, at least two sizes too big now. "Skin and bones," one nurse had called him as she took away the plastic tray from his room the day before, still full of food. Maybe he just didn't like hospital food. Did anyone consider that?
Really, he knew he was too skinny, but a month of being fed by IV would do that to a person. He didn't like being so thin. He even felt weak and chilled under the temperate sunshine beating down on the village as he made his final escape from the hospital lobby. He was always cold now - right down to the bones.
Pacing languidly along the dusty street, Kakashi kept his gaze to the ground, avoiding the stares and the looks that he hated most - the compassionate piteous ones that he got from the nurses, from what was left of his friends, from the Hokage…
It made the emptiness worse.
"It'll fade in time," he thought, "It always does."
But this time was different, wasn't it? There was no Gai to fight with, no Kurenai to talk with, and no Asuma to prowl the pub with. They were gone forever and he hadn't even been conscious to go to the memorial ceremony for them.
He would feel the guilt of that forever.
I'm sorry my last letter was so short. Tension is rising here at the border and I've been run ragged with my duties. We lost two young medics in the field so I've been asked to go on some missions. I've always offered but Ibiki says he'd prefer me at base camp to run the medics from there. I think he worries I'll be killed and they'll have no one to take over the infirmary. He's conceded to a couple of missions, but nothing dangerous.
I'm relieved to hear Kakashi has woken up. I've been so worried for him. I almost returned to help, but as you said, he was under Tsunade's care, I knew there was nothing I could do for him that she couldn't.
My work is very important here. I'm worried war is going to break out soon even though we are doing everything to prevent it. The field medics can do a lot, but I'm needed for what they can't do.
I know it's been a long time, Naruto. I really miss you too. I've thought about returning many times, but there are still so many painful memories there for me. I've thought about selling the complex but I guess that's another thing I can't decide on yet.
Please keep me updated on Kakashi's condition and tell him I'm thinking of him. I'm thinking of you too. I'm sure I'll return one day when I'm ready. Give my love to everyone. I'll write more often if I can.
With gentle fingers, Sakura folded the letter, sealed it in the envelope, and slipped it into her pocket. Every one of Naruto's letters were the same - please come home, I miss you, it's been so long. Every letter in reply would be the same from then on as well. There was no reason for her to return. She loved her work at the border. The medics were wonderful, and having her to encourage and teach them was rewarding in itself.
She did miss Naruto and Tsunade more than she could tell them. The thought of what Kakashi had to go through almost made her make the long trip home, but even his awful situation wasn't enough to drag her back there.
She was still helping Konoha, still an accomplished ninja and a necessary factor to preventing death among the ANBU. She belonged there. There was no reason to ever go back - and there never would be.
Being in a place where death and war were around all the time, she didn't have to dwell on personal things. Work consumed her, and Sakura loved it that way. It was blissful in the way she could throw herself into work and give up a life outside of that. No one knocked on her door unless there was an emergency and no one invited her for dinner or asked to borrow a cup of sugar. It was cut and dry, simple in its complexity. Death and life, life and death. Out there a person caused or prevented one, caused or prevented the other - and there didn't have to be an inbetween if she didn't wish for one.
Societal pleasantries didn't apply to the border ninja. They didn't have to put up a nice façade for someone they didn't like. They didn't have to suck back anger to prevent a scene. They didn't have to feel anything for the person that they drowned their loneliness with in the dark. It was all just raw and simple.
"Hey, Uchiha!" a voice called frantically from outside the large med tent, pulling her from her inner thoughts. "We need you out here now!"
Kakashi stood for so long under the dull clouds in front of the marble memorial that his body ached with the immobility. The names of the people he had a connection with seemed to run into double digits now, and his fingertips ran across the carved names over and over until the skin was raw and bleeding.
How many days had he stood staring at his reflection in the dull marble and wished for his name to be there? Today was another one, just like tomorrow would be. He began to liken himself to a loyal dog that gets kicked by his master to return again and again to the pain and torture of a heavy hand. Why did he continually let himself care for people? This is the life he chose. Why didn't he prepare himself for the consequences of it? Why did he always let people in?
It would have been so much easier to stay blank...
He shivered slightly as a light rain washed over Konoha, the dark clouds turning everything the colour of slate and steel. As the cool spray fell in a curtain across the grassy clearing, he turned his face upwards to the sky and let the drizzle soak through right down to his skin.
It felt good, that cool tingle that shrouded him as he closed his eyes. It was so hard to experience anything but the hollow ache in his chest now, but the feel of the rain helped. In that moment he began to love the rain. The soft patter on the tree leaves and grass made everything else silent.
His drenched shirt stuck to his skin and made him look even thinner. He felt cold, almost freezing, but he willed himself to continue to stand there just to let the rain help him forget.
"Sakura, how is the lieutenant doing?" Morino Ibiki queried as he entered the large infirmary tent at the edge of the border encampment of which Sakura referred to as "Tent Village."
The young medic spun quickly from the broken and bandaged man lying on the hospital bed. Her hair was tied neatly in a braid that hung down her back, and her headband dangled around her neck, just like it did every other day.
"He's alive for the moment," she began, "Although - and I'm so sorry to say this but - I think his missions are over now. Some of his organs are too badly injured. And if he does indeed live, he'll have a long and painful recovery ahead of him with the skeletal damage he's sustained. It's too severe for any medic to correct."
"Damn it." Ibiki flicked his lit cigarette out of the hanging canvas door and approached the man on the hospital bed. His large boots thudded on the makeshift wood floor, and left wet marks from the muck and rain he'd tracked through to get there. "War seems imminent now, doesn't it?"
Sakura bit back on what she wanted to say. Political discussions were not something she enjoyed, especially with the likes of Morino Ibiki. War was going to be Hell on earth should it happen and to see him lose faith in peace pushed her hope downwards. The itch to tell him to go talk to his advisors and leave her out of it was clawing at her, but sense prevailed and she stilled her tongue.
As of late, she had lost the part of her that was hopeful, but a small wish for peace lingered somewhere inside. It was a darker period for negotiations and intervillage contact, but it was like an ocean with tides and swells. Every day was different. She had learned not to expect or be surprised by the daily shifts in the military climate.
"Ah, I shouldn't be so pessimistic. It's hard to see your comrade like that. He was a fine lieutenant, and I'm sorry to lose him. Do your best, Uchiha." He smiled somewhat at Sakura - as much as Morino Ibiki smiled - earning a guarded half-smile in return.
It was so rare for Sakura to smile anymore. It didn't feel natural. She usually reserved only a consoling one for the injured men that would lie frightened on her table, praying just to live another day.
"I'm going to the planning area. Let me know if his condition changes," he said finally and then bowed slightly before thudding back outside.
Following him to the doorway, Sakura took a deep breath and tried to absorb the smell of the rain as she pulled back the canvas flap and strapped it open. She watched Ibiki jog a little, splashing mud from the rain-soaked ground onto the back of his long coat as the gentle curtain surrounded him. The misty drizzle was something she had always enjoyed. It was cleansing and refreshing, almost rejuvenating. The short bursts of thunder and the dull rolling clouds put her into a calm state. The patter of the drops was soothing to her ears. She truly loved the rain.
"Sasuke didn't though, did he?" she silently reminded herself. Her mind had already recalled that night a week before their wedding when she begged him to come out for a walk with her in the light Konoha rain. He laughed at her when she stood out in front of the door to the Uchiha home and opened her mouth to catch the drops.
"I hate getting wet," he shouted out to her with a hint of a laugh, leaning in the door frame.
Spinning to face him, Sakura enjoyed how Sasuke's dark eyes roved her wet front as his black long-sleeved shirt clung to her nineteen-year old body. She loved the way his eyes drank the sight of her. She gave him the seductive smile he loved, and waved him over with a finger. He couldn't resist that look, could he? His kisses tasted like rain that night, and his rain slick-body slid so perfectly against hers as her fingers moved through his damp hair.
The roll of thunder broke her reverie as she watched the Jounin and ANBU moving around the area, pacing quickly and trying to escape the deluge. Her finger rubbed her pink lips softly as a few tears blurred her vision. Stepping out from the tent, she raised her face to the sky and let the drops try to wash away the memory.
It took three weeks for your letter to arrive after you dated it. I was beginning to think you were ignoring me. Hinata sends her love, and Tsunade asked me to send you this book on weaponry and poisons.
I've seen Kakashi a few times. He doesn't really talk to anyone much. He's still thin and looks tired. I went to his apartment, but he never answers his door. If I want to catch him for anything I can usually find him at the memorial. We are all pretty worried about him. He's gained weight and is doing some training, but he's not himself. I think he may never be after that mission. I know he lost a lot of friends that day.
Tsunade's been busy with the impending war and we are all hoping the worry is premature. The tension has been going on for years but Tsunade has warned that the cold war between the villages is escalating.
Ino had her baby. It's a boy and Shikamaru is beside himself with pride. Another lazy Nara in Konoha.
Should I ask if you are coming home? I'm probably just wasting my time, aren't I. We were out at the pub the other night and a group of people were talking about you. Kiba had arrived back from the border and was there too. He told us how you're doing. He was optimistic with Ibiki's abilities and the negotiations, and talked of how respected you are. He also said you were alone a lot. It makes me want to come there, Sakura. I understand alone, and it's not good. It was hard to hear that.
I'll at least beg you to take a vacation and come home. Kakashi could use another friend, I think. Please consider it.
Naruto rubbed his forehead and felt sadness twist in his stomach like a vice. Kiba had told them more than Naruto had let on in his letter. He talked of how Sakura never smiled, and on a rare occasion, would cry thinking no one saw her.
It had been three years since the demise of Uchiha Sasuke. Naruto had been there for Sasuke's last moments on earth, and it was still painfully difficult to think about. Obviously his widow would find it even harder.
Naruto could understand why she didn't want to come back, and he didn't blame her in the least. All the memories and all the reminders of the future that would never be would bombard her. So many had gone on to happiness with life, marriage, and children. Sakura's happiness had been torn from her only a few short months after her wedding.
She didn't really want to move on or to face it so she ran away two months after the day her young husband died in his best friend's arms. Sasuke was thinking of her in his last moments and asked Naruto to look after her with his last breath. It was something that didn't really need to be spoken; all the men of team seven had always looked out for her.
When Naruto returned, he was the one to tell her. She never stopped crying - from the moment she heard until the day she left, he never saw her face without tears. He had hoped she would find some peace in her new surroundings, but what Kiba had said brushed that hope aside and now Naruto worried more than ever.
It was just another indication that she would never come home. What would it take to get her to move on with her life?
The Jounin of Konoha began to gather in the small meeting room that grew overly warm with the bright Konoha sun blazing through the wide windows. The multitude of bodies in green and black mulled about, eventually taking seats for the usual meeting and mission disbursements.
Kakashi entered slowly, trying to find the strength to put up with the long drawn out meeting. It had been three weeks since he had left the hospital, and for all outward appearances, he looked better. It was difficult to force down the ramen when he didn't feel like eating, but putting himself on a schedule to regain his weight was necessary for what he wanted.
He took a seat near the back and couldn't help but notice all the vacant chairs around the room. It took everything he had to keep focus on what Tsunade was saying as his eyes tended to drift to the windows and beyond.
As she held up some papers, the Hokage looked around at all the faces watching her. "All right, some S-class missions have come in. Unfortunately there is one here that is unranked. I know you all understand what that means, and I will not ask anyone to do it. I'll take volunteers only, and if no one accepts then…"
"I'll take it," Kakashi said calmly from the back of the room, an absent lift of his hand drawing her golden eyes to his location.
"Oh - Kakashi... I didn't think you'd be here," she said, trying with difficulty to hide her shock.
She hadn't bothered him since he'd left the hospital. He made sure all the reports from the people she sent to check on him said he was eating and training. With the impending war and the lack of elites, she had been busy with political business and couldn't go see him herself. He'd also made it hard to tell from his appearance how he was faring. His body was still thin but his color was better, although he had gained some weight. It was likely she would suspect his motive for wanting an s-class mission but she couldn't call him out on it.
It was the type of mission the Hokage would ask about, but if no one accepted, it was turned down. She never wanted to lose a ninja for money. It would never even cross her mind to force someone to go. It was rare that ninja survived those types of missions.
"I'm feeling better, and I'm ready to take missions," he said calmly, and gave her a placid smile under his mask. She could only guess that he was forcing her hand to get what he wanted as he kept his tone undetermined.
"There are other missions you can start with, Kakashi," she offered, forcing her smile also, then looked away nonchalantly in hopes to abate his interest in the unranked suicide mission. He could tell she didn't want to argue in front of the group.
"Unless anyone else volunteers, I think this one will be fine." Kakashi moved slowly to the front of the room and took the paper right from her hand. "I'll report in when I'm back."
He strolled out slowly, pushing his hands down into his pockets, decidedly ignoring the rest of the meeting. He got what he wanted. There was no reason to stay.
Sakura watched the moon rise over the trees surrounding "Tent Village." She was almost transfixed on it. Such a perfect orb rising over the world, it made her feel insignificant like a she was just a brief moment in time, making no impact at all. It was red tonight and hung in the sky like a Japanese lantern, spreading a red-orange glow over the multitude of pale tents laid out under it like a blanket.
It was a warm night, and quiet for a change. No one was injured or hurt, and the medical tent was empty save the sleeping lieutenant. A slow flap of the wind against the tent sides made the canvas move slightly over its wooden frame, creaking gently. It was a large and well-built medical area. Her instruments stayed clean, and there was a closed off back section where she lived. The wooden platform it stood on helped for stability, and she appreciated that it was the best constructed tent in the entire clearing.
There was one wooden building nearby which was designated as the central planning area. Meetings, mission planning, and strategies were done in there, as well as interrogations. It was a catch-all, she supposed, and she avoided it as much as humanly possible.
Walking out into the soft green expanse, Sakura moved away behind the medical tent to find seclusion. She laid down and let the sweet smell of the grass overcome he as the long blades tickled her cheek. Closing her tired eyes as the warm breeze made the trees rustle peacefully nearby, she slipped into reverie.
He was always on her mind at night. He seemed to creep in with the stars.
"What are you making?" Sasuke had laughed, as he approached her from behind. She leaned over the kitchen counter and smiled as his strong hands slid around her waist, lips tickling the back of her neck. One hand moved some pale strands of hair away from the skin under her ear, and she soon felt his breath there instead.
"It's sweets, but they aren't holding together properly." She shook her head, laughing at the sweet sticky mess on her fingertips. She'd never forget how vibrant the sunlight was glinting off the faucet beside her. "I think I'll just throw them out." She laughed again while trying to slide out from his grasp to move near the garbage.
She realized quickly that he was holding her fast, and reaching for her hand, he turned her to face him. Slowly he drew her fingertip into his mouth, moving his tongue over it.
"Mm, they're good." His dark eyes smiled as he led the next fingertip to his lips, his hot fingers tightly keeping her wrist locked.
Her breath quickened as she watched him toy with her. He enjoyed arousing her this way. It didn't take long to forget the mess on the counter as clothes fell to the floor, and the caresses and touches led them to their bedroom.
Sakura smiled at the memory. If she tried hard, she could still feel his warm weight on her body, pressing her into the mattress as his lips brushed her shoulder. Even the sound of their lovemaking was such a vivid memory. His soft sighs and declarations of love still whispered in her ear were so clear.
Such painfully sweet memories she had. She could feel the heat in her eyes, and fought it. The lump in her throat pressed upward making the need to cry so much stronger, but she railed against it. What use were tears now - to her, to anyone?
Edited sept 08