AN: Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura were 13 when Sasuke left. Assume that somehow, Konoha managed to bring Sasuke back three years after that. Add another three years to that, and so I came up with 19, which is the current age of the trio.

AN: The second half of this fic is based on chapter 183 of Rurouni Kenshin.If you're familiar with RK, you'll know when you get to that part…


One Fine Afternoon

"Hey, hey, Sasuke!" Naruto bounced gleefully to the said shinobi, who immediately put on an annoyed expression on his face. Whenever the hyperactive fox-boy used that tone, he was usually up to something.

Right now, Sasuke wasn't in the mood to deal with his friend's antics. They were just back from a tough mission that lasted for a week. All he wanted was to crawl into his comfortable bed and get some decent amount of sleep, something that had eluded him during these past few days.

"What do you want?" came the curt reply from the Uchiha, all the while giving his jounin colleague a 'leave-me-alone-or-I'll-chidori-you-to-the-next-century' glare.

Of course, Naruto brushed off the glare as Sasuke being his usual arrogant self. "Wanna see who's the better sprinter between us? The first one to reach the gate of Konoha---"

"Naruto! Will you just stop being so ridiculous?" The third member of the group finally jumped in the discussion in defense of the black-haired jounin. Sakura no longer disliked Naruto like she used to do in her early genin days; in fact, over the years she had grown to respect and love him as she would her own brother. But the boy could still cause her – or everyone else within hearing range for that matter – severe headache with his nonstop chatters.

On top of it, the weather hadn't been cooperative at all. It was getting colder and colder each passing day. Winter was really coming. The fact that she forgot to bring a shawl really got to her nerve. Her cloak was apparently not enough protection against such a chilly weather as it still left her neck exposed to the vicious wind. I'm a competent kunoichi, for Hokage's sake! Should've done a better preparation… At this rate, I'm going to catch a cold!

"Sakura-chan, why are you angry?" Naruto faked a hurtful expression as he turned to Sakura who was walking a few steps behind him, but then his face split into a wide grin. "Just relax! It's just a perfectly harmless sprint!"

"Sakura, he's right." Sasuke fell a few steps behind that he now walked alongside the kunoichi. "Just relax," he smirked then, "and ignore the idiot."

"Sasuke, you---" The blonde was about to retort when he suddenly came up with a better idea. "Ah, I see what it's all about." A wicked gleam flashed across his blue eyes. "You're afraid of losing!"

Sasuke twitched ever so subtly. "It won't work on me this time."

Two can play the game. Naruto thought triumphantly. Sasuke, you so can't beat me in this game. Then in a singsong voice he said loudly, "You hear that, Sakura-chan? Sasuke the loser knows that he cannot beat Naruto the future Hokage, so he refuses to meet my challenge!"

"Naruto, you're hopeless…," muttered Sakura under her breath. Beside her, Sasuke twitched again. This time, it was less subtle than before. Unfortunately for him, it didn't go unnoticed by the other boy.

His face sporting a grin that would shame a Cheshire cat, Naruto raised his voice and continued to taunt his friend, "Sasuke the loser is afraid to lose to Naruto the future Hokage. Sasuke-CHAN is a co---"

The degrading honorific was the last straw for the black-haired jounin. "That's it!!" Marching ahead to where Naruto stood, Sasuke assumed his stance. "I'll take on you any day now, Idiot!! So come, let's get it over with! The first one to reach the Konoha gate wins, you said? Easy…" He smirked. "Feh, future Hokage? I won't lose to the dead last of the academy!"

"Say that when you actually win the race, Sasuke-chan!" Naruto readied his stance also and began to count. "One."

"Guys!"

Naruto and Sasuke heard Sakura's exasperated voice from behind them somewhat vaguely. But even if she were to shout on top of her lungs, her words would probably fall on deaf ears. They were way too absorbed in the impending race to be able to understand her correctly anyway.

"Two."

"Don't forget to---"

"Three!"

"---meet at the office tomorrow at 9 AM to submit the report for the mission." Sakura finished slowly, knowing full well that her efforts were wasted on the boys' stupidity. Throwing her hands up in frustration, she began to rant. "Honestly, when will they grow up?! No, I rephrase: do boys even grow up at all?!! How they, especially Naruto, ever became a jounin is a mystery to me… With them competing over the most ridiculous of things half of the time they're not on a mission, it's really unfair that they get to be that strong!"

Her eyes eventually softened as she watched the two dots that were Naruto and Sasuke becoming smaller at a very rapid pace. "They will never change, will they, Kakashi-sensei?"

The man being addressed stopped in his tracks and raised his eyes from the orange-covered book he held in his hand to look at her. "Huh? Sorry, did you say something, Sakura?"

"Arggh!! Not you too!" Sakura suppressed the urge to yank at her own hair in desperation and jabbed him playfully in the chest instead. She could do that easily these days. Over the years, the kunoichi had grown taller, even taller than most of the girls in the village. But Kakashi was still a head taller than her.

Sakura sulked at the silver-haired jounin's negligence. "You could've said something to stop Naruto, you know… You are the team leader after all."

"And do you honestly think he would listen to me?" came the nonchalant answer while he fixed his attention to his reading again. "You know Naruto better than that, don't you, Sakura?"

The girl sighed in defeat. For all of his laid-back attitude and his silly fascination with that perverted book, Kakashi was extremely perceptive of his surroundings. It didn't seem like it, but the kunoichi knew that not many could go by unnoticed by his keen senses. The man must have heard the whole conversation from the very beginning until the very end.

"This stupid rivalry they've developed," she went on and pointed an accusing finger to her former mentor, "they must have learned it from you and Gai-sensei!"

"Well, what can I say?" The invisible corners of his mouth curved into what Sakura guessed must be a haughty smirk. "They are so impressed by the example Gai and I put up…"

"Men…" Sakura grumbled and rolled her eyes at him. Damn if he didn't sound so amused. The infuriating man just loved to tease her at times when it inconvenienced her the most.

In some way, Kakashi would never change either. His tardiness was every bit as bad as when she first had met him. And he still read those naughty books every chance that he got. Sometimes it brought comfort to her though, knowing that there was at least one thing in her life that remained constant.

Looking at him expectantly, Sakura gave him one of her most disarming smiles. "Walk me home?"

The moment that smile appeared on her face, Kakashi already knew what she was going to say. It had become some kind of ritual for both of them. Whenever they hang out together, either for training sessions or just a drink at bar, she would always ask him to walk her home. And he would always comply then, no matter what time of day it was.

The silver-haired jounin wasn't sure how it all started, but he decided that it didn't matter. It was obvious that they both liked and – at least for his part –looked forward to the routine, so why bother to change it?

So he followed through the ritual like he always did. Smiling fondly at the kunoichi, he replied softly, "Sure…"

And that was how they found themselves walking side by side in comfortable silence a few moments later.

Just then, a gust of wind blasted through the path they were in. Biting back a string of curses, Sakura shuddered and hugged herself in a vain attempt to quell the chill. Maybe Naruto's idea to race all the way back to Konoha wasn't so bad at all…

Kakashi glanced at her. He had noticed a while ago that she regretted not bringing her shawl, but he figured that she wouldn't want to be treated as a princess in front of the boys. Because being a princess meant that she needed to be protected. Because to Sakura, princesses are frail and weak, not tough like she wanted herself to be.

Really, sometimes Kakashi just didn't understand why she felt the way she did. Sakura was an accomplished medic-jounin, respected and loved by her fellow shinobi. He thought it was probably the remnant of her inferiority complex she had had during her childhood. True, she could never possess raw strength such as that of Sasuke and Naruto, but that didn't mean that she was weak. It was just that her talent lay elsewhere.

Wordlessly the man shoved his beloved book back into his pouch and began to unwrap the shawl around his neck.

-

Being so caught up in her losing battle against the cold air, Sakura was more than a little startled when she felt a hand on her shoulder. "Wha---"

Her words stopped short when she realized that Kakashi had closed in on her. With him standing so closely in front of her, the girl could almost feel the warmth his body emanated while his hands were wrapping the shawl around her neck gently. A blush crept into her cheek as she realized their proximity and his intimate gesture.

"There…" Kakashi secured the shawl and gave it a tug before stepping away from her. Smiling tenderly at her, he turned around and resumed walking. "Now you don't have to worry about catching a cold anymore."

Blinking rapidly, Sakura was at lost for words. What had just happened? And by that she didn't mean Kakashi acting oh so gallantly by sacrificing his only source of warmth for her. No, she meant the butterflies that had been – and were still – in her stomach while he had been draping the shawl around her neck. Come to think of it, this is not the first time something like this happens. There was that time when---

"Yo, Sakura, are you coming?"

His voice broke into her thoughts. There's always another time to think about the butterflies… Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she jogged to catch up with him. "Kakashi-sensei, you don't have to do this! What if you catch a cold?"

"Don't argue." Kakashi patted her head lightly and smiled under his mask. "If I get sick, you can always heal me. You're a medic-nin after all…"

Arguing with Kakashi when he had his mind set on something was futile; it was something Sakura knew all too well. Sometimes the man's stubbornness could rival a mule's. But strange enough, the thought of him making such a fuss about her wellbeing warmed her heart. So she returned his smile with her own and said softly, "Kakashi-sensei, thank you…"

Another bout of silence ensued as the pair continued to walk. From afar, the gate of Konoha came into view, looming in the horizon.

Sakura first felt it as something soft and cold fell on her face. Raising her hand to brush it off her cheek, the thing melted against the warmth of her skin. Her eyes widened in surprise as she looked up to the sky. "Kakashi-sensei…," she breathed while her hand absently tugged at the said jounin's sleeves, "it's snowing!"

"Yes, it is…" His one visible eye stared at the sky in amazement. "When was the last time it snowed in Konoha?" Scratching his chin, Kakashi was deep in thought for a while. "If my memory serves my correctly, it was about three years ago, right before…" He trailed off as he realized that he was about to bring up that issue.

"… before we managed to bring Sasuke-kun back to Konoha." She finished it for him without batting an eye. "It was our last winter without Sasuke-kun." Smiling as to assure her companion that she was okay with it, she said, "Ne, Kakashi-sensei, you don't have to worry about me. It's all in the past now…"

"Aa…" was the only reply he could give. She has grown indeed, not only in body and strength, but also in mind…

"You know…," Sakura began to speak once they resumed their journey back home, "You told me once that things would go back to the way they used to be." There was a trace of melancholy in her eyes as her mind wandered to the incident around the time when Sasuke had left the village. It seemed like a distant memory now.

A small smile appeared on her lips. "Lately when I see the way those two behave, I realize that you didn't lie to me back then… Things are going back to the way they used to be. Sasuke-kun may have lost a part of his humanity when he joined Orochimaru, but these past three years have proven that he still has it in him. We won him back, didn't we?"

"We did. But…" Kakashi began slowly as he kept his gaze fixed at the open space covered with snow before him. "Some things cannot be mended, Sakura. Naturally we'll help him as much as we can, but there are wounds that run too deep to be able to heal completely. And sometimes, one has to carry the burden of his scars as long as he lives. You have to understand that…"

"I know. But at least he's ours again…"

"That's true." His one visible eye closed, indicating that the man was smiling.

"Well, considering how things are going between them," her melancholy mood dissipated, replaced by optimism, "I think that we're walking toward a bright future! We'll be at peace, and we can eventually be together forever." Sakura grinned merrily as she went on, "I just know that things will be all right!"

Glancing sideways, Kakashi noted her jovial expression. Such naivety… "I'm glad that you're being optimistic, but Sakura, I'm afraid that it's not possible."

"Huh?" His serious tone caught her off guard as emerald green eyes widened in surprise. Her inner dance of joy was halted abruptly by the other jounin's statement.

"Time changes, Sakura, and so do people. In fact, the only thing that doesn't change is that things change." Running his fingers through his silver mane, Kakashi looked up at the snow flakes that were falling from the dark sky. "Take Naruto for example. He has changed so much from the show-offy, hyperactive, #1 loudest ninja we used to know. He is…," he chuckled, "well, he is still the show-offy, hyperactive, #1 loudest ninja in the village. But he has grown so much that he's hardly the same Naruto we knew back then. Someday he'll become a famous shinobi. And his ambitious dream of being Hokage, I don't have any doubt that he will eventually achieve that one dream he brags about the whole time."

"Sasuke may be casually doing missions with us, but soon it won't be enough for him. We're like a family to him and he doesn't mind our company, but like Naruto, Sasuke has his own ambitions. I for one think that he will join ANBU somewhere near the future…"

Turning his head to look at the pink-haired jounin beside him, Kakashi smiled at her. "The same thing goes for you, Sakura. You're a very talented medic-nin. Tsunade told me that herself. One day, with your advanced medical jutsus, you'll help many people and save countless lives…"

"All three of you are meant for great things, but with it comes the necessity to make your own choices that inevitably will lead you toward different roads of life. Understand that you each have your own path to follow. That each of you has your own lives to live…" There was a wistful look on his face as his voice softened a bit, but still loud enough that she could hear him clearly, "It's a journey, not a separation. It's a beginning, not an end… It will be a little lonely, but that's the way things are."

Snow immediately piled around Sakura's feet as she stopped in her tracks. For once, the cold didn't bother her. It was like she was rooted to the ground, unable to do anything but watching his slowly retreating back. He said that it wasn't possible for all of us to stay together forever… Is it? She wanted to call him, but she ended up saying a completely different thing.

"But I…," her throat was dry, but somehow her voice came out steadier than she had expected, "I want to be with you forever…"

Sakura knew not what possessed her to say such things. Maybe the cold was wreaking havoc on her brain more than she herself realized. Maybe the lack of sleep during the mission was beginning to take toll on her common sense. Kakashi was her sensei. Granted, officially she was no longer under his tutelage even if she still sparred with him every once in a while and he still taught her some of his over-a-thousand jutsus. But they said once a sensei, forever a sensei. Once a student, forever a student.

So whatever it was she was feeling toward her sensei, it was probably just a fleeting emotion triggered by her delirious state in the midst of the heavy snowfall, right?

Right. Except that Sakura knew exactly what she felt. It wasn't just a fleeting emotion, because it had been there for a while now. And while she hadn't meant to blurt out like that, she actually meant every word she had said…

Sakura still cared about Sasuke. She had always cared, and she would always care; that much she knew. The Uchiha heir still held a special place in her heart even if any romantic feeling she used to have for him had waned over the time. She didn't know when, but at some point in her life Haruno Sakura realized that she no longer loved Uchiha Sasuke.

And here in front of her was the man that currently had her affection, the man that held her heart in his palm.

That man was now standing several feet away from her, staring at her with eye(s) wide in unfeigned shock. Hatake Kakashi was at a lost for words, something that didn't happen quite often.

The tension in the air became so palpable to the point of almost unbearable as they continued the staring match. And the silence was so maddeningly deafening that Sakura could hear her heart beating rapidly.

Thump

Way to go, Haruno. Now you've gone and done it…

Thump

The damage's been done. There's no way you can take back what you said…

Thump

He doesn't feel the same way as you do.

Thump

For him, you are and you will always be that little girl he used to teach…

Thump

Any minute from now, he's gonna say 'Huh? Sorry, did you say something, Sakura?'

Thump

Face it, you---

Suddenly Sakura laughed nervously, effectively breaking the tension. "Ah… S--sorry!" Right now, the girl wanted nothing more than to get out of the awkward situation and save whatever shreds of dignity she still had left. "Forget what I just said! It's nothing. Must be the cold…" She started to walk past Kakashi and kept on blabbering, "Anyway, we'd better get back soon! The snowfall is getting heavier and heavier! At this rate, we'll get not Desert Graveyard, but Snow Graveyard. Hehe, Gaara wouldn't be pleased if he knew I'm making fun of his jutsu! And I'm sure Sasuke-kun and Naruto---"

She stopped her incessant chatter and walking altogether when she felt Kakashi's hand on her elbow.

The shock on his face was already gone by the time Sakura dared to look at him in the eye. His face betrayed none of his emotions; the man was still as unreadable as always. He seemed serious though.

"Why, Sakura?"

Sakura couldn't quite place a finger on what was in Kakashi's voice as he asked the simple question. She thought there was a hint of resignation, but resignation of what?

Kakashi didn't let go of her arm. His grip was tight enough to let her know that he wouldn't just let the matter drop, but loose enough that it wouldn't hurt her. "Why me?"

Why indeed… Sakura mused to herself over his simple question. He's old, he reads perverted books, he's always late, and he's my teacher… I could probably think of a lot of reasons why I shouldn't be having butterflies in my stomach whenever I'm near him…

Half of her wanted to evade the question and just run away. But apparently the other half didn't agree with its counterpart. Don't you dare running away from the mess you created yourself! Be a woman and face your problems!

Tearing her gaze away from his, Sakura answered softly, "Just because…" She was putting her heart at stake here, but whatever the result would be, she would not hide and run anymore. "I don't really know why. I'm more inclined to think that there's no 'whys' for this kind of thing. But if there's one thing I know, it's that you're always there for me…"

Taking a deep breath, she began to regain some confidence. She didn't dare to meet his gaze though. "When Sasuke-kun left, I thought my world had come to an end. I thought that things couldn't get any worse. But it did, when Naruto, together with Jiraiya-sensei, also left. I was left behind, I was all alone."

A small smile tugged the corner of her lips at the memory of those days long past. "But you were there for me, you stayed with me here…. Even after I asked Tsunade-sensei to take me in as her apprentice, you still didn't turn your back on me. Kakashi-sensei, you're the one thing that remains steadfast in my life. But above all…," mustering as much courage as she could gather, she continued in a whisper, "…I'm happy when you're around."

There. It was about as much as what she could convey at this moment. Sakura couldn't say anything more, not when she had no idea what his reaction would be. It was out of her hands now. So her heart dropped when she felt him removing his hand from her elbow.

Taking it as a sign of rejection, the pink-haired jounin sighed in resignation and turned around, her back facing him. There was nothing she could do anymore. But she refused to be reduced to the same puddle of tears she had been when Sasuke had left. I will get through this with my head held high and---

For the nth time that afternoon, Sakura's eyes widened in surprise. The voices in her head died down as she realized that Kakashi had stepped forward. He was now at her side, and he had his arm around her shoulder.

Without words Kakashi pulled her lithe form a little bit closer to him and started to walk. And being held in his arm, Sakura was forced to move along as well, all the while blushing profusely at his unexpected, yet not unwelcome gesture.

"At this rate, we both will catch a cold, ne, Sakura?"

It was just so Kakashi to come up with such statement after she had been utterly and completely honest about her feelings. Hell, she practically put her heart in a platter and presented it to him! Sakura should be angry at him for saying such a damn insensitive thing. But there was something about the way he spoke to her, something that wasn't there before.

"Kakashi-sensei…," she breathed as she finally dared to meet his gaze. And what she saw there really warmed her heart.

Smiling tenderly at the girl – no, the woman – in his arms, Kakashi said, "Sakura, don't you think that it's time for you to drop that honorific?"

Blinking back tears of joy, Sakura returned his smile with one that conveyed all what she felt. "Kakashi…"

"I care about you, Sakura. I always have… I care about you a lot." Kakashi tore his gaze away from her as the slowly approaching symbol of Konoha caught his eye. "And maybe a lot more than I should have…"

Spots of blush tainted her cheek as she looked down at the snowy ground. Her fingers twiddled with his shawl draped comfortably around her neck. "Is that so…"

Kakashi was swift in replying. "It is."

Her smile became even brighter at the sincerity she found in his simple statement. Leaning her head into his broad shoulder, Sakura timidly reached out to encircle his waist with her arm as Kakashi automatically tightened his half embrace.

At that moment, they both understood.

Sometimes, words were just not needed…

- The End -