By the time she's 20 years old, Sakura is used to the idea of unrequited love. She's also at peace with the thought that it's all she'll ever get. Sometimes, late at night, just before going to bed, she sits on her bed of choice, her arms under her head, eyes to the ceiling or the sky—depending on where she is—and remembers.
She was too young when she fell in love for the first time. Sakura's affections towards Sasuke had been a common knowledge in Konoha, so no-one was really that surprised, when upon the boy's leaving, she retreated in her room and cried her eyes out. Her mother was the only one allowed in that chamber on that day. The older woman allowed her daughter to cry into her lap. She stroke her hair back from her forehead, making all the shushing, loving noises a mother should make in this type of situation, saying all the right words. Sakura's ears, however, were deaf to everything. Constantly, she remembered all the days with Team 7, all her time spent trying to win Sasuke's love for herself—not because it was a competition, but because she had honestly, deeply fallen in love with him. Her 12-year-old heart, broken for the first time. She was 15, a bit older and a bit wiser, stronger too, she'd have liked to think, when she met him again. That was the time she let go. After that encounter, her heart broke again, and this time, when she cried on her bed, not even her mother could reach her. The last piece of her heart belonging to Sasuke, she let go of, when the last tear fell on that dusty photo.
She was about 16 years old when she realised that Naruto, the sun and the colour in her life, had always been there for her. She saw the signs. She learned to like his presence, to yearn his smiles, and to love his every touch. Soon, she learned to love him. But if Sakura had ever been anything in her life, it was a late bloomer. Naruto's affections had stopped being hers. His brotherly love was hers to hold forever, he'd said, but his heart, was not. She cried a bit for Naruto, while she sat at a table in the tea-shop, watching him from afar, with the owner of his heart. Ino had been next to her that time, but the girl had known when to be silent. Sakura didn't allow her heart to break for this lost love, because unlike with Sasuke, she still had Naruto's love. And somewhere deep in her mind, she knew he would eventually get over her at the same time as she fell for him.
She was around 18 years old when she'd started to fall in love with Sai. It caught her in her uttermost poetic stage, and she'd find herself writing poems, and long analogies about how their love was like a canvas, or a flower, or maybe a pretty cloud. Sai knew, because for some reason, even though he was a retard to most social relationships, he'd learned to read her perfectly over the last three years. He confronted her, one evening in her apartment. Maybe it was raining, but maybe it was just Sakura's imagination adding dramatics to the story. Sai could not love her back, because his heart belonged to his brother, and his mind still belonged to ANBU Ne. Sakura didn't cry over Sai, because the boy had given her a great analogy for their love. An empty canvas that you won't cry over, when it's burned to ashes.
After Sai, Sakura decided to live a little, and forget about waiting until she fell in love again. A kunoichi's life was as short as the life of a butterfly at times, and just as fragile. And while Sakura had grown to be an undeniably good ninja, surpassing her mentors at times, she still can't help but fear her own death. She didn't want to die unloved, just like she didn't want to die without loving. She wanted to learn how a kiss would feel. She needed to know how a lover's embrace would feel. But time passes by fast, and missions occupied more of her time than love could.
So by the time she's 20, Sakura is resigned to unrequited love. She's used to the thought of not finding anyone to hold her, keep her warm. But that's okay. Just because she knows she's doomed to this sort of fate, doesn't mean she's not going to try and change it.
"I need to get kissed," she tells Ino on her 21st birthday. They're putting up balloons for the party that will happen that very night, in honour of Sakura's coming of age—to drink, to vote, to marry. Not that I'll ever marry. I haven't even been kissed. Who'd want an old hag like me, anyway?
"You need to get laid," Ino supplies helpfully, adding a balloon around Sakura's ugly looking vase—a family heirloom. "And you need to get a boyfriend, too."
"I know that, Ino-pig," Sakura retorts. "I'm trying, you know."
"Sakura, you silly idiot," Ino starts, taking a seat on an armchair full of balloons and causing some to topple over on the floor. "If you plan to not die as a virgin, you have to give up on your romantic idealisms. Guys these days will most definitely not come to your door with flowers. They will not serenade you. They won't ask your father's permission to take you out. You need to stop being a mouse and start being a cat. They like that."
"You know," Sakura drawls. "All your advices would work more if you weren't engaged and pregnant, miss cat. I thought you planned to be the most wicked woman and seduce all men of Konoha. What happened with that ideal?"
Ino shrugs. "Hey, I found something better. I know what to do when I find something better, you know? You, on the other hand—"
"Don't. I know, I know," the woman interrupts, waving her hand dismissively.
"Right. Oh, don't tell Chouji that I'm pregnant, he's finding out tomorrow night," the blonde adds with a sly grin, just before the doorbell rang.
"Strange. No-one should be here for another two hours," Sakura muses, walking over to the door to open it. "Hello," she starts, ready to greet whoever is behind that door, and that is namely: "You…large bouquet of flowers?"
A man emerges from behind the flowers, and Sakura's heart skipps a beat, wondering who this new admirer is. Maybe a chance at requited love? He's nothing big, granted, not very handsome. Actually, he has the typical black eyes, black hair most civilians in Konoha have. But he has a certain air about him that just makes Sakura want to—
"Delivery for Haruno-san?"
—not think about any hopes of romance with him. A flower delivery boy. "I'm Haruno Sakura," she says, a bit uneasy as she glances at the large bouquet of chrysanthemums.
"Happy Birthday, Haruno-san. These are for you," the man says, holding out the flowers. Sakura takes them, inwardly thinking they smell nice.
"Yuji? What are you doing here?" Ino asks the man. She'd arrived two seconds before, looking interested over why the Yamanaka delivery boy is at Sakura's doorstep.
"Delivery, Ino-sama," the man answers, and with a polite bow, he leaves the two women alone at the door.
"Well," Ino begins.
"I got flowers," Sakura says, surprised. "I got flowers," she repeats, a grin blooming on her face. "And you said men don't come on your doorstep with flowers, you infidel."
"Yuji doesn't count, he's a delivery boy," Ino snaps. "Who're they from?"
Sakura looks for a note, anything, a proof of the sender of the bouquet. She finds a piece of paper stuck between two stems. They bare no name, just three very significant words. I'll be late.
"Well? Who sent you the flowers?" Ino prods, looking at the note over Sakura's shoulders.
"Kakashi-sensei," she answers. After all, she knows his writing, and she knows his style. He's the only one who'd send a cryptic note and expect her to know who sent it. But it's strange, because up until now, he's never sent flowers along with the notes. Actually, most of the times, he hasn't sent notes at all. Maybe it's the special occasion.
"He sent you flowers? Do you think it means something?" Ino asks, following Sakura as the woman sets the flowers in a vase. They do smell nice, really.
"Yeah," she answers. "Yeah, it means he hopes I won't kill him when he gets here three hours late for the party."
By the time Kakashi arrives at the party, however, Sakura is too drunk to think of hitting him. And also too busy trying to kick Sai's ass at Shogi. Which is a very hard thing to do after two bottles of Tsunade's best sake, and an arm tied behind her back. But a challenge is a challenge, and when she told the smug bastard she could beat him with her arm tied behind her back, she damn well meant it.
Or maybe it was the alcohol talking.
When the game is over, and Sakura raises as the victor, she struts over to the kitchen. It's time for cake, she thinks. A little bit of chocolate will clear everyone's minds again, and maybe stop Naruto from vocally raping the karaoke machine. At least, it's worth the try.
"I see you're having fun."
She turns around at the sound of the familiar voice, hand already reaching for a kunai. Old habits die hard, especially when he has the talent of constantly sneaking up on her, wanting to catch her with her guard down. But he's been a good sensei, if anything, and Sakura has learned, in the past four years of training and sparring against the man, that you could never let your guard down. Not if he was around.
"You're late," she slurs slightly, legs failing her slightly as she uses her kunai to deflect the one he's thrown. It hits an ugly vase with balloons around it—a family heirloom—causing it to break—good, she hated it, anyway.
"What are you talking about, Sakura-chan?" he asks laconically. "I've been here a long time. You just never noticed." Somehow, the tone he uses speaks about hidden secrets to his meaning, but she's too drunk to notice. And much more safe with routine around him.
"Liar," she snaps, pointing at his nose. "You're late, Kakashi-sensei."
"And you," he says, pushing her hand down gently. "Are drunk, Sakura-chan."
"I was getting the cake," she says, after a while. The only smart reply she's got to his lines. "You're in time for the cake."
"Goody," he says, his voice monotone. It's ruining her cheerful mood. Or at least, her fake, but perfectly believable, cheerful mood. "You're having fun, then?"
"Yes. Of course. Tons of fun. Oh, and thank you for the flowers, sensei. I won't hit you for being late until tomorrow in practice."
"I didn't send them with those intentions."
"Liar," she says, and turns around. "Cake, sensei?"
"Yes," he answers, leaning against the cupboard next to her. "Why are you gloomy?"
"I'm not gloomy. I'm awesomely happy. It's my birthday party, and I'm having fun," she snaps, smiling through gritted teeth.
"You're so bad at lying, Sakura-chan."
"I'm not lying!" she almost shouts, before letting out a long suffered sigh. She never could hide anything from him. He read her too well. Much too well. "I am honestly having fun…"
"But…I don't know. I'm twenty-one…and…and my whole living room is filled with people who have people who love them. So I guess I'm starting to wonder if it's a plot to drive me insane. After all, the three times I fell in love, it was unrequited, and just when I try to get over that, and find myself someone to love, I find out that they're all taken!"
"Perhaps you should stop drinking," he says after a while, removing the glass from her hand. When had she taken it? She can't remember. "Maybe you haven't been looking right."
"What do you mean?" she asks, looking up at him, confused.
"You've only been looking at the young boys. A woman like you should look at—"
"Don't be stupid!" she snaps. "I've had trouble with the younger boys, what makes you think the men will be any different?" Rubbing her neck awkwardly, she steps away from him. "It's just a phase. I'll be cheerful again in no time, sensei. I just…need time to get over the idea of being a complete failure in finding love. I'll die unkissed," she says, cutting a slice of chocolate cake and passing it over to him. "Or maybe I'll move to Suna."
"Don't. You shouldn't let something like love get in the way of your happiness. There are more things to it that that."
"Yeah, what do you know?" she mutters. "Enjoy the cake. Join us when you're done," she says, and leaves the kitchen just in time to miss his look.
There have been many people who have said that Sakura was a strange girl. Even more people who will say that she's a stranger woman. Ino, if you ever ask, will say that Sakura's weirdest quality is her mind. And the way it works. When she's depressed, Sakura thinks a lot. She gets lost in her thoughts.
So while her guests are busy having fun, she retires to a dark corner of her living room, and remembers. Her conversation with Kakashi has opened doors in her mind, and she's not as drunk as to not notice them. Maybe he is right. Of course he'd be right, he is Kakashi-sensei, after all. Maybe she has been looking in the wrong places, after all.
But then again, there were few the men that interested her. And by few, she meant at most, three or four. The ones she spoke to out of work requisites, or politeness, were not enough to tug her towards them. Actually, if she thought of it better, the only one who's kept her attention for years is Kakashi. But that's only normal, since he's her sensei. It's only normal.
It was normal, when he decided to train her four years back. He wanted to make up for his past mistakes, he'd said. Naruto had Yamato, and Sai. Sakura had her broken heart, and her busy Tsunade-shishou. And Kakashi had his regrets, and his one second chance. He'd taken it, almost too gladly. They'd started training each day, in everything from taijutsu, perfecting it, to ninjutsu, where Sakura lacked heavily. Some would have complained at the strain Kakashi put on the people he taught, but Sakura never opened her mouth to say anything other than 'again' or 'more'. She didn't need to be better, stronger. She had no one to kill, or avenge, and no-one to recover—who wanted to be recovered. But she had a strong, strong will to make Kakashi proud. To make him regret not having taken her into consideration before, to make him feel sorry for how he'd discarded her as the weaker member of the team, and to make him proud of his decision to make her better.
In between heartbreaks, and unrequited love, Sakura had had Kakashi. She'd taken him out for lunch, she'd forced him to pay for dinners. They trained, then they rested, then they trained some more. Sometimes, they went on missions together, and most of the times, either she would end up healing his wounds, or he'd end up giving her a piggy-back ride home. It was routine, it was safe, and it worked. Even the Hokage agreed with this. But…
…now she realises that Tsunade never gave her flowers. Tsunade never pulled her into a strong embrace—which, now that she looks at it, was nothing professional—ordering her to not dare die on her. Tsunade didn't wink, or talk to her like they were accomplices, instead of master and apprentice. Tsunade didn't say things like 'You're cute when you're angry'. And Tsunade's touches definitely, definitely did not make her weak in the knees when they lingered.
"Sakura? Are you in there? TenTen told me you called. She said it was an emergency…"
The door opens brusquely, and Ino is left facing a red-eyed Sakura. There's a moment of pause, while the noise from the room nearby dies out. Ino steps inside her friend's bedroom, and closes the door behind her. "Why are you crying?" she asks.
"I've had an epiphany," Sakura answers. "I've done it again."
"Done what again?"
"I've just realized I'm in love with someone. I mean, I never knew it before tonight, and it's definitely not the booze or my need for finding someone to deflower me talking, Ino. It's the real thing. It's like with Sasuke, or Naruto, or Sai, only it's…different, this time."
"It's…it's Kakashi," Sakura whispers, dropping on her bed with a sigh.
"Are you sure it's not the booze talking?" Ino asks, sitting near her.
"No. I mean, I'm sure. I've been depressed, so I've been thinking and…well…you know. And I remembered that he's the only man who was there when my heart was broken those times, and that I get flushed a lot around him, but…but…I never thought I could be in love with him, because I was too busy finding someone who'd love me back, and not hurt me, and in my eyes I guess Kakashi doesn't fall into that category, because he'd definitely hurt a lot. You know? He's the last member of Team 7, and if I fall for him, I lose for good. Because remember how nothing was ever the same after I confessed to Naruto, or Sai? If I lose Kakashi, too…then what will I do?"
"You're not going to get hurt," Ino tries to say, tries to sound convincing. But she's probably used to seeing Sakura get her heart into these messes more than she's used to seeing her happy. "He…he sent you flowers!"
Sakura lets out a bitter smile, and falls back on her bed. "This one will be messy."
"Then don't tell him? Just…get over him. Find someone else?"
"I don't think I will be able to. Not when it's him."
Ino has no answer to that.