Sakura entered the Hokage's building just after one, busily arranging a mental to-do list in her head. She was too distracted to worry about tardiness; the written report of her mission crinkled in her tight grip. There would be much work to complete today.
A few wrinkled Elders passed the kunoichi on a flight of stairs and nodded, but her thoughts were far away and she didn't notice them. It seemed that every time she remembered one thing to be done she forgot another, her mind flashing back with little hesitation to Kakashi – the enigma who had been haunting the foreground of her mind these last few days, after haunting the background for years. Was their relationship classifiable? What did she want from him? Sakura twisted her lips. It wasn't his face, pale and prose-like – full of possibility. That would change too many things between them, break too many boundaries. (She once told him that his face, to her, was meaningless . . . Not true, her mind now cried, not true.) The unveiling of his face would feel bridal, solid. She would kiss him, then, without reserve or caution. And really, who could say what might follow? They were both adults now.
As Sakura walked, the slow and nonchalant voices of two ninja discussing bloodshed caught her interest; she quickened her pace. The first voice was unmistakably her shishou's, but the second was only strangely familiar to her, like a fragment of a dream not yet remembered.
As she neared it, Tsunade's office lapsed into silence. The second ninja had slipped away.
Sakura waited for a discreet moment before calling, "Shishou?" and rapping her knuckles crisply against the door. "Shishou, it's Sakura."
The room was permeated in the scent of sake and pleasantly cluttered. The Hokage glanced up at her student, smiling briefly before she re-buried her head in a thick medical tome.
"You're not particularly early, are you? Call Shizune for me."
Sakura poked her head out the door, where a familiar-looking genin was scurrying past, some scroll clutched tightly between his fingers. "Tell Shizune to report to the Hokage's office, Raido," Sakura commanded mildly. The lad looked up at her and squeaked, probably surprised that she had remembered his name from one of the Academy classes she had taught last year. With a blindly obedient nod, he hurried off.
When Sakura turned around, the Hokage had abandoned her book for a thick stack of papers, the likes of which Sakura hoped she would never have to face. What a headache. Sakura was not surprised when her mentor pushed them aside carelessly and rose from her chair, arranging the faux-youthful lines of her face into a pleasant smile.
"Sit, sit, Sakura," Tsunade offered with motherly warmth in her voice. "Your mission went well, I take it?"
Sakura bit her lower lip with a pearly white incisor, cautious. The task had been tough but not impossible, requiring all of her diplomatic skills a fair amount of stealth, and certainly those people-reading skills she had bragged to Kakashi about. And the end – killing her way out. The gritty, heart-breaking kind of fight in which someone will die – make sure it's the opponent. The kind of fight where "opponent" feels sickly on the tongue – it can only be enemy from here on out, or how could you justify it? Perhaps she wasn't an entirely unbiased judge, but Sakura was certain she had been assigned an unusual amount of these kinds of missions in the last month or two. Why would a rising medic-nin need all this background in diplomacy? In warfare?
But Sakura honestly didn't know what to expect anymore. Konoha was waging an unofficial war with the land of Sound, and so it was feasible, she supposed, to expect the unexpected – which struck her as advice Kakashi would give. A moment of shrewd silence passed before a loud, informal knock sounded and Shizune stuck her head in the door. "You needed me, Tsunade-sama?"
"Those notices need to be delivered, Shizune." Tsunade, having returned to her seat, started rifling through her papers again. "I'd like you to do it for me. Those two idiots are out." The Hokage's assistant nodded deferentially and shut the door, winking at the seated kunoichi as she went.
If Sakura knew Shizune as well as she thought she did, there was something behind that wink. The kunoichi raised a pink eyebrow. "Notices, sensei?"
Tsunade continued to examine the documents. "Hm. I guess, since you're already here . . . Tonight there will be a mission debriefing for an upcoming assignment. You will be serving as the team medic, and Kakashi is coming along to supervise, but I don't think you'd know any of the others."
Sakura's mind immediately jumped to Kakashi's ambiguous parting sentiment earlier that morning. "So, um, who all knows about it?"
Tsunade's eyes narrowed, but Sakura couldn't tell if she was thinking about her student's questions or the contents of the folder in her hand. When she spoke her tone was absent. "No one, as of yet. It was scheduled just recently. Mm – why?"
Sakura shrugged, inwardly marveling at Kakashi's knack for gathering not-quite-public knowledge. "No reason, shishou . . . Here's my report, by the way." The Hokage nodded sagely but didn't respond. Sakura looked down at her hands, faintly pink with the blood she hadn't managed to scrub off. Something was not quite right.
"Shishou?" Sakura asked, her green eyes glistening in earnest. "Another mission, already? I just got back from one last night, and – they need me at the hospital."
The Godaime's smile just barely touched her eyes, but at least she wasn't looking down anymore. "Oh, we're just a little short on manpower right now, Sakura-chan. Hyuuga Neji's out for a month on critical injuries, and a large group of ANBU came out of a serious scuffle with Sound rather worse for the wear. Is there a reason you don't want to go on another mission?"
The former student of Hatake Kakashi recognized a trap when she saw one. Rising fluidly, Sakura shook her head and said, "Well, I've got to get going. I'm sure you'll want a head start on those papers." Tsunade groaned and waved a smiling Sakura out the door. Once alone, the highly respected Godaime pulled out a bottle of sake and snapped her fingers.
A darkly attired ninja crouched before the suddenly very world-weary Hokage.
"Get me Hatake."
In general, Kakashi liked to shun anything to do with children, or childhood, or childish behavior. So it followed that he couldn't exactlysay why he was skipping rocks on this pond as if he weren't a thirty-two year old shinobi. Pressed hard, he would probably guess it had something to do with Sakura.
She wasn't really a child anymore, was she? This knowledge bothered him more than he liked to admit, and then some. It really wasn't his business. But what had he expected her to be – frozen in time, a child in mind even with a body like that?
The Godaime had been grimly pleasant, unhappy yet satisfied with his news when he had reported to her after leaving Sakura's house (bedroom seemed too intimate a word). He had given a favorable report, all things considered, forcing the Hokage to concede. 'I believe she is ready for this mission,' he had said, with pretend composure.
Was she ready? Hell yes. Was he?
There was nothing "normal" about this elaborate procedure he and the Godaime were conducting. Any other jounin and they would not be so deep in serious consideration, weighing all sides, all consequences. But this was Sakura, dear student to both. Some measure of caution was required for their sanity.
Kakashi sighed. Even through deliberating, they both knew that should she be unprepared for what they would ask, their only option was the same – they would choose what was best for the village.
The silver-haired shinobi knelt, his glove fingers twitching between two smooth, flat rocks. He picked both up and weighed them in his hands.
The debriefing was tonight. By this time, the Godaime might've already told Sakura about the mission. Why had he let it slip that he knew anything about it? Kakashi deftly flicked the larger of the two stones into the placid water of the pond; it wobbled over the soft curve of the water for a second and then plunked into the murk. "Hn." A wrong decision, made so easily – but maybe, in the end, it wouldn't matter that he was mixed up in this after all.
Tsh. Kakashi had never had the ability to lie to himself to soothe his own conscious. It did matter. In the end, he was losing his touch. Losing it – all. God. He'd already lost his other two students, in some way or another, and he wasn't about to lose this one. It didn't really matter how he kept her.
The copy-nin dropped the second stone from his hand and one-eightied away from the pond, his hair a blur of silver like a speeding kunai in the forest. It occurred to him that if he ran fast enough, his lost toss - failure - wouldn't catch up.
Sometimes Kakashi even thought it was normal to measure loss with insanity.
Sakura at the hospital was a woman in control. Forged of steel with a heart of something softer, she bloomed under the strain of surgery like no medic anyone could remember. Even Tsunade spilt her stress in cups of sake; even she let her eyes start blurring past midnight. But not Sakura. The heavy antiseptic gloom of the hospital seemed to part for the pink-haired medic. White-jacketed and smiling, she was making her rounds for the first time in weeks. Damn missions. It was good to feel grounded again. Undeniably, on missions Sakura felt like a fetus without an umbilical cord, a candle in the dark. In truth she felt like her abilities did a little but could not quite light up the entire room.
Sakura put a hand to her temple to stop the stilted metaphors. "Anything for me?" she asked the woman at the front desk.
Midori looked up and smiled. "Only a list of checkups a mile long."
Sakura groaned. "I keep up with surgeries. How do I always manage to get behind on those?"
"Something to do with procrastination, I believe," Midori answered winsomely, handing Sakura a clipboard. "Here, I've organized them by difficulty, in descending order."
The pink-haired medic chuckled. She lifted some of the preliminary papers to get to the list of patients who were due for checkups. "Oh, heavens."
The receptionist grinned. "Might as well get it over with, right?"
Kakashi was on his way to the ramen stand – or his apartment – anywhere, really – when a chuunin cut him off, one he recognized as a courier for the Hokage.
"Hatake Kakashi, you are to report to the Godaime's office."
Again? he thought in annoyance. The copy-nin considered his options. He could definitely outrun this kid, but perhaps the repercussions wouldn't be worth the initial glee.
"Alright, alright," Kakashi said, bowing to fate. "I'll get there."
The chuunin noted this evasion – get there when? – with a narrowing of his eyes but went up in smoke without a word.
Kids these days . . . No respect. Kakashi smirked suddenly, wondering what his old buddy Genma would say to that. Genma, whom he hadn't seen in months. How was the old womanizer doing? Snickering, the copy-nin additionally wondered who the brown- haired womanizer was doing.
Fate, the fifth, bah. He needed a break. Kakashi headed in the opposite direction of the Hokage's tower, his mind wandering back to his and Genma's old haunts. He would start at the Silver Senbon.
Sakura entered the room formidably, a medic on a mission. "I'll just be in and out," she said kindly, bustling about the room in a way few women without children could do. But then, who was to say that Sakura didn't have children? Many children: hospital boys and girls with broken limbs and hacking breath. It was a sad life, this.
Genma grinned up at her as she fluffed his pillow. "Why, Nurse Haruno," he said. "What a pleasant surprise. I was just beginning to think that there wasn't a pretty woman in this place."
Sakura smiled wryly. They both knew that she had purposely assigned him a caretaker who wouldn't . . . tempt him. Nurse Ai was a heavy-set mother of five, with a ruddy complexion and scolding nature. She had a heart of gold, but Sakura was fairly sure Genma had been to preoccupied mourning the absence of a young, attractive nurse to notice.
"You don't like Nurse Ai, Genma-san? I picked her out special for you."
The jounin chuckled. His eyes were half-lidded, but that only emphasized the intensity of his gaze.
Sakura moved away from the bed and the sex-starved jounin. "Hm," she mused at the chart, facing away from the bed-ridden senbon-sucker. Green eyes scanned over the report. "Looks good, looks good," she murmured, ignoring the nefarious chuckles behind her. "How's that wound?"
Sakura glanced over her shoulder to gauge his reaction and was not particularly pleased with the one she received. No man she knew could look hungrier than an abstaining Genma. Well, she thought dryly, at least I know he's not sneaking off into the night and reversing all our handiwork.
"Not so good, Sakura," Genma responded. His stab at mock-weariness was rendered ineffective by the growling husk of his voice. Sakura felt a small thrill in her belly and immediately began shuffling papers. If it was a desperate grasp at a distraction and he was laughing at her for it, so be it.
But, God, that man's laugh . . .
Is second only to his voice, her mind proffered unhelpfully.
As if sensing her inner debate, Genma spoke again, this time with no pretense to hinder the sensuality of his characteristic drawl. "Nurse Haruno, I believe it is your duty to help your patients . . . and, truly, this wound needs immediate medical attention."
"I'm sure I wouldn't be of any more help than Nurse Ai has been," Sakura said pointedly, turning to face him.
"No, my fair kunoichi, you're mistaken. I'm sure yours is just the touch I need to make me well again," Genma returned, his chocolate brown eyes welling with something darker than childish mischief.
A knock on the door saved Sakura the necessity of a reply. She went to open the door but sooner than she could reach it – Kakashi pushed it open himself. The man staring dolefully through the door frame did not seem surprised to see her; in fact skimmed over her in search of someone else.
Kakashi's visible eye tilted downward upon seeing the shaggy brown-headed man in a pristine white bed. So, he was here for his friend, but it was not, perhaps, a friendly visit. The expression he wore – Sakura sensed it almost tangibly – was one of displeasure.
The medic-nin felt a powerful jolt of emotion when he passed. She sucked in a breath of air, afraid to speak, afraid of the sudden spell they were under, she and Genma. The two stared as Kakashi stalked or sauntered up to Genma's bed, opened his vest and tossed a small orange book onto Genma's lap.
"Something for the wait," he explained airily, turning around. "And – you might want to lay low for a while. Apparently, you owe someone at the Silver Senbon a good deal of money."
Genma nodded the brief nod of someone struggling very hard to place a name or a face. In this case, Sakura suspected, it was a behavior pattern – but she didn't think much of anything after that because Kakashi turned and with the same mysterious gait walked out of the room, sparing her a half-nod and a small murmur that might have been anything.
Genma's magic, it would seem, dimmed a bit when Kakashi was in the room. And even after the door was shut and Genma seemed to be in control of his mental facilities, his voice seemed less of a growl than a whine.
Smiling patiently, Sakura fended off Genma's further propositions-thinly-disguised-as-medical-queries and left the room not thinking about the one in it.
No, she was thinking about a different man entirely.
On his way to the Godaime's office, Kakashi reflected that his former student would need a lover who had known her intimately since childhood. There were three men in the world who truly qualified: Naruto, Sasuke and himself. She might try to run from it and find a man who knew her only as the "mature" Sakura, but he also knows there is an immature side of her that would forever be hiding, and he knows that she relies on the past too little for her own good. Someone would have to be around to remind her that good things can happen in bad times, and bad things can happen in good times, and sometimes a little remembering isn't a bad thing.
Of course, could he really teach her such a lesson without too much emphasis? Konoha did not need another Kakashi, erecting the past with monuments and worshipping, worshipping, never letting go.
Either way, he felt that it was time to step back and evaluate his relationship with Sakura as a whole, from the very beginning. This might . . . fix things.
Yes, he told himself, walking up stairs for once instead utilizing his customary distance jutsu, he had been far too hasty of late.
His thoughts continued in this manner, and he could feel the fight-or-flight response kicking in. Of course, Kakashi preferred to call it 'self preservation,' and generally his reaction was of the passive-aggressive persuasion. But Sakura, he was sure, would sooner punch him into Sand Country than be ignored, however subtly. And while he certainly needed a vacation, a week in the hospital didn't sound as appealing as, say, a trip to the beach.
Kakashi promptly shook his head in order to rid himself of several lascivious images of Sakura in a bikini, and then, shockingly, one of her . . . not in a bikini. That kind of thinking, he knew, should be confined to his reading material, and kept far, far away from Sakura. His physical wellbeing depended on it.
Obediently, Kakashi's thoughts returned to his own passive-aggressivism, which he supposed tended to the "disorder" side of the spectrum, rather than the "behavioral issue" side. Not so surprising, particularly with his childhood.
As Kakashi strolled down a long hall in the Hokage building, he briefly listed symptoms: ambiguity, avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness, blaming others, chronic lateness and forgetfulness, complaining, resentment, sarcasm, fear of dependency, fear of intimacy, intentional inefficiency, making excuses, losing things, lying . . .
Kakashi smiled as he thought of the old routine. That sweet, red bridge; all those memories, just another memorial. "LIAR!"
Well, honestly. "I was helping an old woman cross the street"? What, did they think he was making it up for the hell of it?
The cringing crash of shattered glass snapped Kakashi from his thoughts.
"Hokage-sama?" he said loudly, sprinting the few yards to her office's door. "Hokage-sama?" he repeated. He pounded the door once, with his fist, before flinging it open.
Broken glass and sake puddled at her feet. She was standing next to the window, her hands covering a face no longer youthful. She had let the jutsu fall.
"Tsunade. H-hokage-sama." He was breathing hard.
Surprisingly, no one had heard; or else surely they would've come running. He closed the door and walked toward her with measured steps. Her shoulders were trembling, but there were no tears. "I'm going to clean this up now," he said evenly, beginning to kneel.
"Don't." Her voice was sharp, like the glass, and Kakashi took note of the bright red blood dripping from her hands. "Just leave it."
And so he left it, and they stood, and they waited for the sun to set.
Tsunade cleared her throat abruptly. "I'm sure you're all wondering about the stipulations of this next mission."
The mood in the room was grim – certainly more serious than Sakura had expected. Other than Kakashi, she didn't know anyone else in the room. Knew of them, yes – they were all jounin; top jounin, practically-ANBU jounin.
And she . . . she was a jounin, too, but she was primarily a medic. And a newbie, at that. She could not help but compare herself. It was her nature.
To her left was Morino Idate, younger brother of the late Morino Ibiki, again affiliated with Konoha. One missing finger, several scars across those broad, powerful hands, dark eyes that seemed to look into your soul – Sakura shuddered and recalled the written portion of the chuunin exams.
Kakashi was leaning up against a wall behind them, clearly on a level of his own.
Further along the line stood Tanaka Kaito, then Sato Masaru, and finally Yoshida Rei, the only other woman on the team but as battle-hardened and fierce as the others.
Not for the first time tonight, Sakura's stomach writhed with nerves. These were strong, experienced ninja. She tried, only partially successful, to keep these feelings off her face. What was she? A petite, pink-haired medic, who happened to have powerful teammates and powerful teachers.
But regardless of her insecurities, Tsunade thought she deserved to be here, and she was clearly going to debrief them whether Sakura was listening or not. Naturally, Sakura opted to stop pissing herself and pay attention.
"We are on the verge of an official war with Sound. But we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to our other enemies."
Sakura's cleanly groomed nails buried into her palms. Konoha only had one other definite enemy . . . oh, this would not be good.
"Akatuski sightings have sharply declined over the last six months. The group's current whereabouts are unknown, as are their most recent plans. Track them, find them; report back to me."
Naturally the mission should sound simple, even easy. But this was the Akatsuki. If they were sensed, and deemed any sort of a threat . . . Sakura swallowed.
"Depending on – circumstances, your mission may be extended. We need to uncover their plans regarding the Kyuubi and its container, Uzumaki Naruto."
Sakura hated it when Tsunade talked like this. Like Naruto wasn't a human being, like he wasn't a little brother to her. As if his very life was only important in the context of the Kyuubi. As if he was just another shinobi, and not . . . Naruto. Sweet, shining Naruto, who hadn't stopped growing in years, ate ramen like a last supper, couldn't seem to stop pulling pranks on high-ranking official. He was gonna be Hokage some day.
Sakura felt sick. But Tsunade was looking at her sharply, as if waiting for her to back out. She can't do that. This was what she'd worked for. Credibility. And these last few months, all the missions . . . the blood on her hands . . . it's been a test, she realized, they'd been testing her.
"I need to know if you are willing to accept this mission," Tsunade said slowly. Or maybe Sakura only thought she was speaking slowly. She blinked and could've sworn Kakashi was on the inside of her eyelids; just a flash of silver hair in a room full of grinding bodies. Her thoughts spun, dizzied, frantic, as, one by one, her teammates nodded. Kakashi nodded, he must've.
She thought of Naruto; his burning passion for Konoha, his eagerness when they were younger for any mission, just not another D-Rank! And Lee, who had been forever put on the sidelines by one fateful match, with his fiery youth and spandex. He still sometimes brought her flowers and left them on her porch with letters waxing eloquent about her grace, her strength, her loyalty . . .
The other four were looking at her curiously.
Credibility. Her life wasn't worth much without it. She felt sick with nerves.
"I'll do it," she said, looking her mentor in the eye and for some reason not seeing pride, as she'd expected. Still, her wretched stomach thrilled with anticipation. "I'll do it."
There was a darkening from behind, like the quick change of temperature before a storm – but Sakura could hardly feel it – she was burning so brightly, brighter than the sun.
A/N: Do your eyes deceive you? Is that the actual emergence of an actual plot? Stay tuned… And by stay tuned I mean you should be more prepared for the next ice age than my sixth chapter.
By the way, that list of passive-aggressive disorder symptoms? Straight off Wikipedia. I was looking it up one day and I was like, hell, yes, that is Kakashi in list format. Hence the deliverance of this very chapter. (bows to the Wikipedia gods)
Also, "agressivism" isn't actually a word. Until I made it one, that is. :-)