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 tired eyelids opened, the fluorescent white-green light seared into his blurred gaze. Lifting his hand to shield his eyes, he found something wrapped around his forearm, preventing his frail attempt to cover his face. The throb of injury enveloped him as sounds and feelings plucked painfully his memory.
He was cold in the bed; the air felt like ice and his skin tingled and hurt from it. The blankets felt too light, but too heavy at the same time.
Shivering slightly, again he tugged in vain at what felt like cool strings on his arm. It was difficult to move as the dull pain contracted along his muscles; he found he couldn't even tense as he tested his body, his fingers fumbling weakly to even clench or tighten into a fist.
"Lie still, Kakashi," Tsunade's calm voice floated in from somewhere beside him. A warm hand pressed lightly on his aching chest trying to calm him.
"It's bright," he whispered, his dry throat preventing the sounds from escaping any louder. He squinted painfully as the light seemed to bore right behind his mismatched eyes. The sharingan ached all the way through.
"Shizune, turn off the lights overhead," the Hokage's serious voice drifted over him again. "Kakashi, don't try to talk right now. Just lie still."
"Where…?" he strained.
The light overhead flicked off, eliminating the annoying hum and intrusive brightness. A small electronic beat was keeping time beside him on the opposite side of Tsunade, and Kakashi slowly realized where he was. The thick distinct odor of sterility stuck in his uncovered nose.
Slowly the grim visions came rushing back with the dark knowledge of why he was there, and all horrific circumstances that led up to this moment. Lacking the control to stop, he gritted his teeth, his outward appearance finally catching up with his mind.
"We'll talk later...when you're stronger," Tsunade whispered to him as he moved his head slowly to look at her grave face. There was fear behind her eyes, and he knew why she looked at him like that, like she wanted to close them or look away. He didn't want to relive it; obviously she didn't want to make him.
"How long?" The breathy whisper passed over his dry, cracked, exposed lips, as his shocked expression turned painful. The weight of his weak body and the hunger spiking in his stomach told him he'd been there more than a day or two.
There was a pregnant pause as Kakashi squinted at the fidgeting woman who could not meet his eyes. 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 quietly composed herself to respond.
"23 days..." Her voice was just above a breath.
The immediate crush in Kakashi's chest told him it was true as he turned his face away from the blonde Sannin and pressed his eyes closed tightly.
His heart wanted to ask if there was anyone else, but his awakening 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. I have some news. Kakashi finally woke up 3 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 fast, but considering what happened, I think it will be a hard road 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. When are you coming home?
I went to Sasuke's grave today and thought of you. Tsunadewas 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.
I miss you.
"Who are you writing to?" the soft soothing voice of Naruto's wife, Hinata, asked from his office doorway.
"What are you doing up?" Naruto smiled at her and stood up from his desk to look at the pale eyes and graceful smile he'd fallen in love with. He grasped her around her waist, and pulled her close for a small kiss. "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 she felt belonged to only her.
"I don't know. It's been almost three years and her letters always say the same thing. I don't know when I'll be back." He brushed his lips over her face beside her closed eyes.
"Come back to bed," she said softly, her hands running lightly over his sides.
How could he refuse?
"I'm ready to leave." Kakashi said in a gravely monotone as his mismatched eyes glancedup at the Hokage fleetingly. He sat in a hard blue chair in the corner of his hospital room, and turned his head back to the dusty window where he seemed to keep vigil most days, his chin perpetually resting on his uncooperatively shaking hand.
"I don't think you are. Have you eaten anything today?" Tsunade raised her eyebrows accusingly. "The nurses tell me your tray is full when they pick it up."
"I'm not unwell." Kakashi glanced back at her sideways. "You really can't keep me here forever."
Tsunade caught the miserable worn-out look in his eyes, and knew that remaining in the hospital really wasn't helping him. If he didn't wish for help on his own, she couldn't force it on him. He was healed on the surface, and as a thirty-six year old man, she couldn't treat him as a child and hold his hand against his will.
"You're right, Kakashi, I can't. Go home then. But until you look better, I won't send you on any missions." Tsunade headed for the door in defeat hoping she wasn't making a terrible mistake letting him walk out so easily. "I'll be having someone check in on you periodically."
"Fine," he spoke to his transparent reflection, his listless gaze taking in nothing.
The Sannin stopped at the door, her fingers digging into her palms from trying to keep her emotions in check. She felt the compassion she had for his situation run through her, and resting her outstretched hand on the 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.
As the door closed lightly, Kakashi felt the relief of his body slackening because he was finally alone. The 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 at worse times - like this one.
And unfortunately, only adding the the strain, he would be checked on like a child to see if he was eating, sleeping…living.
After packing up his few belongings, he made his way along the shiny, immaculate floors of the hospital, passing by the smiling nurses and pacing medics. The 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.
He knew he was too thin, but a month of being fed by IV would do that to a person. He didn't like being so thin; he felt weak and chilled all the time, even under the heated sunshine beating down on the village. He was always cold now - right down to the bones.
Pacing slowly along the dusty street, the Copy-nin kept his gaze to the ground, avoiding stares or those looks that he hated most - the compassionate piteous looks 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 am 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 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 that wasn't enough to drag her back there.
She was still helping Konoha, still an accomplished ninja and a necessary factor to preventing deaths among the ANBU. She belonged here. There was no reason to ever go back; 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 Sakura, and she loved it that way. It was blissful, the way she could throw herself into it, and give up a life outside of that. No one knocked on her door unless there was an emergency, 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 in-between if she one didn't wish it.
Societal pleasantries didn't apply. 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 your loneliness with in the dark. It was all just raw and simple.
"Hey Uchiha!" a voice called frantically from outside the large 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 gray marble memorial that his body ached with the immobility. The names of the people he cared about 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 his name was there? Today was another, 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?
It would have been so much easier...
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 him right down to his skin.
It felt good, that cool tingle that enveloped him as he closed his eyes. It was so hard to feel 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 rain 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 feel the rain.
"Sakura, how is the lieutenant doing?" Morino Ibiki asked in his deep tones as he entered the large infirmary tent at the edge of the encampment which Sakura referred to as "Tent Village."
The young medic spun quickly from the man lying on the hospital bed, bandaged and broken. Her hair was tied neatly in a braid that hung down her back, and her headband dangled around her neck.
"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 in. "This 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 bit her tongue.
As of late, she had lost the part of that person who was hopeful by any means, but a small wish for peace lingered somewhere inside her. 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 the young woman, 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 lay scared on her table, praying just to live another day.
"I'm going to the planning area. Let me know if his condition changes." Ibiki bowed slightly before thudding back outside and jogging a little, splashing mud from the rain soaked ground onto the back of his long dark coat.
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. 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 loved the rain.
Sasuke didn't though, did he, she reminded herself. Her mind had already recalled the night a week before their wedding when she begged him to come out for a walk with her in the soft 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 laugh, still standing in the door frame. Turning to face him, Sakura watched his dark eyes rove her wet front, the black long-sleeved shirt clung to her nineteen-year old body…his shirt. She loved the way his eyes drank the sight of her. She gave him that 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 rain. 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 was there and 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.
The sunshine blond rubbed his forehead and felt the sadness grip his stomach. 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 was three years since the demise of his best friend. He'd 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 knew why she didn't want to come back; he didn't really blame her. All the memories and all the reminders of the future that would never be would bombard her. So many had gone on with life, marriage, and children, and found happiness in each other. 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 that 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; Naruto 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 about her.
It was an indication that she would never come home. What would it take to get her to move on with her life?
The Jounin began to step into the small meeting room that felt overly warm with the bright Konoha sun blazing through the dusty windows. The bodies in green and black mulled about, taking seats for the usual meeting and mission disbursements.
Kakashi entered slowly and breathed in, trying to find the strength to put up with the long drawn out meeting. It was three weeks since he had left the hospital, and for 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 raised up some papers, the Hokage looked around at 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.
"Kakashi! I didn't think you'd be here," she said, trying with difficulty to hide her shock at his presence. She hadn't seen him since he left the hospital. 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. It was 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 seemed to be a good sign that he was improving, but the desire to take an unranked mission made her think he was still unready to jump back in.
It was the type of mission she 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 these types of missions and she became concerned that this is what he wanted.
"I'm feeling better, and I'm ready to take missions," he said calmly, and gave her a smile. She watched his exposed eye crease, but that damn mask hid his face. She could only guess that he was forcing it to get what he wanted; his tone was undetermined and false.
"There are other missions you can start with, Kakashi," she replied, forcing her smile also, then looked away nonchalantly in hopes to abate his interest in the unranked suicide mission. 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 fixated 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 light 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 section in the back for her to live in. The wooden platform it stood on helped for stability, and she appreciated that it was the best tent in the clearing.
There was one wooden building nearby which was 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 avoided it as much as humanly possible.
Walking out into the soft green expanse, she 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 green 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 laughed, as he approached her from behind. She leaned over the dark kitchen counter and smiled as his strong hands slid around her waist and his lips tickled 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, the vibrant sunlight 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, sucked gently on it, and then smirked.
"Mm, they're good." His dark eyes smiled with his upturned lips around her finger. His strong grasp held her wrist as he moved on to draw in the next tip.
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 so clearly.
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 tears strain, but she railed against it. What use were tears now - to her, to anyone?
End of chapter.
Edited sept 08