Chapter Twenty-Four: Dust in the Sunlight

Three days later, in the silent hour before dawn, three former Akatsuki gathered one last time outside the village's imposing gates. Sakura fought off a shiver, wishing the thin material of her lab coat did more against the chill in the air. She had pulled an all-nighter at the hospital, treating the injured Sand nins as they came in over the last several hours.

As hoped, their allies had caught up to the mercenary army and defeated them with the help of a small forward contingent from Konoha, and since Konoha was closest to the battle site, the injured had been brought here. Tsunade had been with her in the hospital, but Naruto had stayed up with Kankurou and Baki all night, going over logistics and further tactical plans. Madara and Akatsuki may be gone, but there were still three villages planning war on Konoha. The gates were closed now due to the threat, and the only witnesses to their meeting were the ANBU patrolling the walls.

Tired as she was, Sakura felt wide-awake. A year ago she'd never have believed she would come to call Uchiha Itachi a friend, and certainly would never have thought she'd be sad to say goodbye.

"Are you sure you won't stay?" she tried one last time, her breath a barely visible puff in the chill, moist air. "Naruto has no problems exposing the truth and pardoning you." She inched closer to Deidara, leeching some of his body heat. Her shoulder still ached a little, and the cold wasn't helping.

Itachi, wearing dark colors and a long travel cloak, again declined the offer. "It's better for everyone this way. Exposing the truth would only shake the village's faith in its leadership." Instead, the agreement was that he would be listed as dead, giving him the chance to disappear and start another life. "Besides…" his gaze turned inward, and a wistful look briefly crossed his features, "…this place holds too many memories for me."

Sakura understood that, and nodded sympathetically. "Do you know where you'll go?"

"Why, are you planning to visit?" A ghost of a smirk played on his lips. It seemed as if a weight had lifted from him with Madara's death. He was still perpetually somber, but the gloomy aura that had always surrounded him was gone, replaced by something more peaceful.

She made a playful face at him. "No. Well…who knows. Maybe someday. Unless you have a problem with that…"

Itachi didn't answer that, but after a moment of thought he said, "I believe I'll go west…or perhaps north, somewhere where there are no hidden villages and shinobi rarely travel." He paused, then softly added, "I have always liked the sea."

Sakura understood his cryptic reply for what it was: an invitation of sorts. He wouldn't have mentioned anything if he never wanted to be found. Suddenly a thought occurred to her. "Kisame went west too. Could it be you know where he is, or plan to find him?"

Itachi regarded them both, as always carefully considering before he spoke. "I have no intention of looking for him, but it is likely we will end up in the same place." He almost left it at that, but eventually revealed more. "Just over a year ago, a mission sent us to the land beyond Earth country. The assignment took a few months to complete, and during its course we lodged in a small town by the coast. Unexpectedly, our stay became more of a reprieve than a mission. That place…it had an almost cathartic quality. I think we both found some measure of peace there," he finished quietly.

There was a lightness to his expression that Sakura had never seen in him before; one step further and he would be smiling. She had seen that same look in others, and she prided herself on her ability to read cryptic people. "Maybe in that place…there's someone you wish to return to?" she ventured slyly.

Itachi didn't confirm or deny her guess. "Perhaps you will learn the answer to that if you are ever able to find me."

She couldn't help but smile. The idea of Itachi having a secret lover somewhere was strange, but…nice. She hoped it was true, and hoped he found happiness. "I'll consider that a challenge, then."

Itachi looked to Deidara, who hadn't said a word the entire time. "I know you realize what a rare chance you've been given," he said, meaning Sakura, Konoha, and many other things someone with his life and past shouldn't bother to hope for. "I hope you don't squander it."

Deidara didn't scoff or glare at the advice as he once would have. He had adopted a more relaxed attitude toward Itachi in the last few weeks, since learning the Uchiha wasn't really an emotionless bastard, but rather someone who held many secrets and wore a carefully crafted mask. They would never be friends, but they were a little closer to developing a mutual respect.

"I won't," he replied, and to emphasize his point, he reached for Sakura's hand. She smiled happily at him.

Satisfied, Itachi lifted his pack onto his shoulders and glanced toward the lightening horizon. "I want to get as far as possible before daylight."

The moment had come to say goodbye. Sakura stepped forward held out a hand, and when he took it she raised the other and clasped his hand in both of hers. "Thank you, Itachi. For everything."

Itachi gave a solemn nod. "Thank you as well, Sakura." He stepped back and regarded them both a final time. "Farewell." He turned to the west, and a second later flickered out of sight, leaving in his wake a lingering sense of mixed emotions.

Sakura remained smiling after he had gone, and turned back to Deidara. He smiled in the soft way he only did for her, and she linked her arm through his as they headed back inside the gates.

Life continued as it always does, one day at a time, everyone moving forward with their lives. Three months passed by in a blur, and one very early morning Sakura found herself climbing the winding stairs to the top of the Hokage tower. Staying awake all night and witnessing the first light of dawn usually meant there had been some crisis that couldn't be solved without her help. However this time, it was for an entirely different, much happier reason, and although there was a bit of a tired plod to her steps, and maybe a little inebriated sway as well, a smile lit her face as she reached the top and saw she wasn't the only one who thought a little fresh air was a good idea.

She wouldn't have expected to find him alone tonight; every time she'd seen him over the last several hours he'd been surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers. The current absence of an entourage was probably due to the fact that nearly everyone was passed out in various locations around the village by now. The entire village had become one giant party around ten o'clock the previous morning and continued all through the night, and would probably continue for the next few days as everyone young and old celebrated the inauguration of the Rokudaime Hokage.

Taking a moment to watch him unnoticed as he stood at the railing and looked out over his village, her smile widened as she took in his appearance; tall and proud, but still so open and warm, his unruly gold hair catching the first rays of sunlight, a faint autumn breeze fanning the hem of the long white coat he'd had made in honor of the man whose legacy lived in him, a man he'd never known but had always felt connected to – for many years not even knowing why. He knew now, of course, as did everyone in the village. She had only ever seen the Yondaime in pictures, but Sakura felt certain that wherever he was in the next life, no man could be prouder of his son.

Naruto was aware of her presence now, and he turned to smile at her as she crossed the distance to stand beside him. The air was cool, but the slight remnant of fading intoxication kept her from feeling it much. She braced her hands on the railing and leaned his way, bumping him playfully with her shoulder.

"Haven't seen you in a while," he remarked pleasantly, bumping back.

"I helped Shizune get Tsunade-sama to bed," she replied, an exasperated smile forming at the memory of a very drunk retired Hokage sprawled out on a sofa across the laps of Izumo and Kotetsu – her two overworked chuunin aides, both of whom would have undoubtedly been terrified or embarrassed or both if they hadn't been unconscious themselves.

Naruto chuckled, not needing an explanation to know the task had been easier said than done. "I'm sure she's gonna thoroughly enjoy her retirement."

"I'm sure she will," Sakura agreed, "even though she's only semi-retired." Tsunade planned to continue overseeing things at the hospital. She would probably continue advising Naruto as well, at least until he got the hang of it. Being Hokage was going to be a very different sort of job than the one he was used to, a fact he was already learning. "How are things going with the Raikage?" she asked.

"Eh, he's a pompous ass…"

"I remember," she said dryly.

"But other than that it's going well. He's open to the idea of an alliance, though it'll probably take months to work out all the details. I doubt Cloud will be true allies like Sand, but at least a treaty will keep them from any funny business."

Konoha had averted the threat of war through weeks of careful negotiation, and by revealing the shocking truth about Uchiha Madara. Mist and Cloud immediately withdrew, considering themselves forced participants in the entire affair, despite the fact that they voluntarily sold themselves to Akatsuki. Stone was less inclined to stand down, as always. Their army continued to advance to the Fire border even as negotiations continued, as if they fully anticipated all talks to fail. A few minor skirmishes occurred when they came a little too close to the border, which raised tensions even higher. For many days it seemed war was inevitable. But in the end, loss of their allies and lack of any true motive led Stone to withdraw, though it was by no means under peaceful terms. Hidden Stone would always be a shadow threat to Konoha – out of sight, perhaps, but never out of mind.

Stone never learned that one of their missing-nin now resided among their enemies, but Suna learned of Deidara's new affiliation the day after they brought their injured to Konoha. Kankurou had to be physically restrained from attacking the man who had invaded his village and hauled his little brother away to be killed. Sakura, whom he respected greatly for saving his life, was eventually able to talk him down. Barely. Naruto took an emergency trip to Suna to meet with Gaara and discuss the issue in person. He'd just begunto accept Deidara himself, and advocating for him wasn't easy, but the two of them eventually came to an agreement: the Kazekage would tolerate – in essence, ignore – Deidara's existence among the Leaf, under the condition that he was never to come within fifty miles of Suna. It wasn't perfect, but it was an arrangement everyone could live with.

"Anyway," Naruto continued lightly, "enough of that. It's the party of the year—in my honor—" he added cheekily, "and I don't want to think about politics."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Sakura teased with exaggerated deference, even bowing a little.

Naruto rolled his eyes, bumping her sideways again. "I don't want to hear that from you, Sakura-chan. It's just too weird."

"It is kind of weird, isn't it? Though I always knew you'd do it someday." She paused thoughtfully. "A Hokage before twenty-one…you're the second-youngest ever, I believe."

"That's not saying much, considering there's only been six of us," he chuckled.

"It does say a lot. It's a big deal." Her expression softened. "I'm really proud of you, Naruto."

He beamed at her. "Thanks."

They were quiet for a while, watching the sunrise together, listening to the first stirrings of the waking village – those who were sober enough to be awake, or unfortunate enough to be on duty. Several minutes had passed when a slow smile brightened Naruto's features and he turned to face her.

"What?" she asked curiously.

"I'm gonna ask Hinata to marry me."

"That's so great, Naruto!" She threw her arms around his shoulders in an ecstatic hug. "I'm so happy for you. Both of you! When are you going to do it?"

He shrugged a little as she released him. "Sometime in the next couple weeks, probably. I'll have to plan something great." Suddenly his grin faltered slightly, and he looked to her with a hint of anxiety. "She'll say yes, right?"

"Of course she'll say yes, you idiot! She's only been in love with you since we were ten!"

His grin returned full-force. "So I've heard from everyone by now. I can't believe I never realized."

"You were pretty daft about a lot of things back then," she reminded teasingly.

Naruto nodded, scratching his head as he reflected. "Yeah, but it's more than that. I always knew somehow that I would be Hokage, and I thought by doing that I would earn everyone's respect, and that would have to be enough. I never thought about all the other stuff, like friendship and love and people who care about me for me. Every day I think about how lucky I am." His smile brightened again. "But now that I'm a somebody, Hinata can be proud to have me as a husband, right?"

Sakura had known for a while that her best friend held these hidden insecurities, but he was always so sunny and bright and smiling, it was easy to forget he still didn't fully believe he'd earned his place in their hearts. "You were always a somebody, Naruto," she admonished softly. "It was wrong, the way people treated you back then. But there is one person who has always admired and believed in you," she finished pointedly.

"I know. And that's one of the biggest reasons I want to marry her."

"Just make sure you're ready to catch her when your proposal makes her faint."

Naruto laughed quietly.

"Where is she, anyway?" Sakura wondered.

"She's sleeping on the couch in the – my – office. You know she's not much of a partier, but she didn't want to leave since it was my big thing. I should take her home soon." He paused, and then brightened. "Hey, will you help me pick out a ring?"

"Of course…" her smile turned mischievous, "…Hokage-sama."

"Argh, would you stop!"

"Okay, okay," she relented. He slung his arm over her shoulders affectionately, and she leaned into him. "I'm really happy for you. You deserve all of it."

He grinned awkwardly, and remained smiling as he regarded her, but his eyes were serious. "Are you happy, Sakura-chan?"

She nodded easily, but her voice held a hint of wistfulness. "I am. But I won't deny that it's different now. I've changed, and I know too many things, and because of that this place isn't what it once was to me."

"You know…you don't have to stay if you're unhappy here," he said quietly, and she could hear how hard it was for him to say it.

"I want to stay," she reassured quickly. "I would never abandon my friends, and Konoha is my home. Too many bonds tie me to this place to ever leave it. Even if it's different, there's no other place I want to live out my life." She nudged him playfully. "And believe it or not, Deidara wants to stay too." She took a deep breath and smiled. "I am happy."

"I'm glad," he said, squeezing her shoulders. "And, I am starting to believe it…about him."

Sakura gave him a knowing smile. "I told you you'd eventually like him."

"He's alright," he muttered grudgingly. "You know," he said after a moment, stifling a yawn, "all this official stuff is more exhausting than battle. I'm pretty beat."

"Same here," she said. "Have you seen Deidara around?" She hadn't seen him since helping her mentor stumble home.

"Last I saw he was in the middle of a drinking contest with Kiba down in the reception hall." The large hall on the main floor of the Hokage tower was rarely used, but tonight – last night, rather, as it was technically morning – it had been ground zero for the village-wide celebration.

Sakura huffed a soft laugh; Kiba didn't know what he was getting into. She hugged Naruto once more, this time including a kiss on the cheek.

"I'll probably see you before then, but in case I don't: good luck on your mission. And be careful," he said.

"I will." She turned to go, and was halfway across the rooftop when he called out to her from behind.

"Don't forget you promised to help me pick out a ring!"

Sakura turned partway to reply, "First thing when I get back!" A grin lighting her face, she headed down the stairs and inside the tower.

Deidara wasn't hard to find, partly because she knew where he was likely to be, and partly because he was one of the only people left awake. Kiba was still with him, but even from across the room she could see the he was done for, slumped over the tabletop with his shaggy head resting on one arm, the position leaving his face rather comically smooshed. Akamaru was passed out under the table. It wouldn't surprise her if the enormous dog was as drunk as his master.

Deidara sensed her approach – only a little slower than usual – and smiled at her as she moved over to him. "I'm guessing you won," she said wryly, reaching out to tease her fingers through the end of his ponytail.

"Hn," he murmured smugly, leaning his head back into her hand and rolling his neck once. She got the hint and began rubbing his tendon with her thumb. He leaned into her further with a contented sigh, making her smile.

"Hey Kiba," she greeted. "Looks like you met your match." The only reply from the half-conscious man was an incoherent groan. Sakura smirked at his woeful state, and reached out to touch two faintly glowing fingers to his temple.

"You do that and he'll want a rematch, yeah," Deidara remarked, with only the barest trace of a slur.

She raised a suspicious brow at her lover. "You're not very drunk. Did you cheat?"

A smirk curled his lips. "I'll never tell."

"He dint chee," said Kiba, coherent enough now – thanks to Sakura – to string a passable sentence together. Almost. "I wach'd 'im. Bastard's not hu…" he hiccupped "…human. I'm tell'n ya."

"Whatever you say, man," Deidara chuckled.

Sakura silently reveled in seeing him interact positively with her friends and comrades, a thing which was becoming more frequent as time passed. Slowly, one by one, they were becoming his comrades too, and she hoped someday they would also be his friends.

Deidara's transition into life among the Leaf hadn't always gone smoothly. It took a while for the threats to stop, and even longer for the glares and snide under-breath comments to subside. For a while it seemed like he was in a fight nearly every day as some new random shinobi – or a few – tried to get their point across that the former Akatsuki wasn't one of them. The Hokage allowed it as long as no jutsu was used, because no matter what a few signatures on a piece of paper said, Deidara wouldn't be respected as one of them until he earned his place among the troops. And so he did, and a lot of egotistical young punks got a taste of what it was like to go toe-to-toe with an s-classed shinobi. It didn't bother Deidara much: as a missing-nin he was used to random attacks, and he enjoyed 'demonstrating' his superiority to those who challenged him. Eventually they backed down, because those who didn't usually ended up with a few broken bones and the realization that it would have been much worse had Deidara been serious.

To the more rational and less testosterone-driven, acceptance came much easier. Especially once word got around that Deidara fought side by side with Leaf nins against Uchiha Madara and had even saved Naruto's – their Hokage's – life. There were still nine months left before he was fully pardoned, and clearly some remaining attitudes to be untangled before he really fit in among Konoha shinobi, but Sakura looked forward to the day he donned a Leaf hitai-ate.

Once things calmed down and people's interest moved on to the next bit of gossip and scandal in the village, life took on a somewhat more predictable rhythm for Deidara, becoming oddly normal. These days he spent much of his time at the training grounds, where his reputation and ranking made him an ideal opponent for those looking to test their skills to the max. He trained often with Team Kakashi as well, and had even gone on a couple missions with them when Naruto couldn't. It was unlikely that he would become a permanent replacement, though; his unique skills made him more suited to solo work and recon. Sakura would miss working with him every day, but having a life with him – a real, normal life – more than made up for a string of missions.

Their new, spacious loft apartment was a perfect fit for them: lots of windows and light, a spare room where Deidara could work on his creations, and plenty of room for her many shelves of books and scrolls. Sakura absolutely loved it, as well as all the little things that made up their life together. Coming home to each other every day. Sitting with him in his studio; sometimes watching, sometimes reading in the chair by the window. Sharing meals at home, or going out on the town. Falling asleep together every night and waking up in his arms. Breaking in every surface of their new home in bouts of spontaneous sex – proving their passion for each other was as strong as ever. Sakura couldn't be happier, and wouldn't trade this new life for anything.

But normal life held its own set of challenges for Deidara. In his life until now, normalcy had been abnormal. He'd never known a "home" or a sense of "day to day." He wasn't used to mundane things like folding laundry or taking out the trash. Sakura worried at first that he would find it tedious and grow bored. Deidara had a lot of energy and tended to become destructive when extremely bored, creating his own thrills by acting out. She had worried he would want to leave. But he was happy, he assured her, and she believed him because it showed. Stability in his life seemed to create stability in his volatile personality as well. He would always be eccentric and hot-tempered – not to mention arrogant – but his turbulent nature had calmed a lot since settling into this new life with her.

Freed from the never-ending uncertainty of a missing-nin's life, removed from the oppressive violence and strife of the only world he'd known for so long, Deidara's fundamental need to channel his energy through creativity had manifested in new ways. The artist in him had reemerged with fresh inspiration and excitement, growing in a direction he never would have if he'd remained a missing-nin. There were opportunities now that hadn't existed before, for him to show his genius to the world and be recognized for it in ways other than fear and infamy. Konoha had gained a treasure in him, and Deidara would gain the recognition he craved and deserved.

A long, drawn-out snore interrupted her reflection. "Is that Hana?" she asked, nodding toward the other person slumped over the table; an equally shaggy head of long dark hair half-buried beneath toned female arms.

"Yup. Lashted almos' as long as me. Thass my sis!" Kiba grinned proudly. He raised his head halfway, just enough for Sakura to clearly see the long, thin scar bisecting his left eyebrow—a remnant of the battle against Uchiha Madara. Looking back, it was a miracle they all survived.

Pushing away darker thoughts, she gave a teasing smirk. "I wish I could have joined. I'd wipe the floor with all of you."

Kiba grunt-snorted at that, and Deidara chuckled and pulled her into his lap. "Only because you cheat," he said, referring to her ability to burn off the effects of alcohol with medical jutsu.

She grinned shamelessly and looped her arms around his neck, pressing her brow against his. "Are you ready to go home?"

"Yeah." His hands smoothed over her hips and around her waist.

"You guys gon may me throw up," Kiba groaned, making a face at them.

Sakura gave him a halfhearted glare, though her lips curled in an amused smile. "Shut up, lightweight." She leaned into Deidara and whispered loud enough for Kiba to hear, "I think he's jealous."

Kiba's unruly head lolled to the side and he managed to raise one hand to flip them off. "Psshhhh."

They both laughed at him; even his scoffs were slurred. She turned back to Deidara. "We should go and get some sleep. We still have to pack later."

"You guys goin ona misshin?" He hadn't bothered to raise his head that time.

Sakura nodded, though he couldn't see it. "Another diplomatic mission to Ame. We leave tomorrow, and we'll be gone about a month this time, so we have a lot of prep to do."

His glassy eyes widened briefly. "Yur crazy fer goin there by yurselves."

Deidara shrugged indifferently. "That's the way Pein wants it, and besides, if he wanted to kill us he would've tried already, yeah."

That wasn't to say there hadn't been a great deal of trepidation the first time Sakura and Deidara journeyed to the Rain village as liaisons of Konoha. Reconciling with the village that once sheltered Akatsuki was a bumpy road at best, and then to add the fact that Sakura had been a spy under Pein's nose and that she and Deidara had both betrayed the organization and defected…Sakura's stomach had knotted with anxiety for days.

The former Akatsuki leader had demanded the two of them and no one else as the ambassadors for peace talks. At first everyone thought he intended to take vengeance on them, but in the end Sakura came to believe that— all lies and betrayals aside— he just didn't trust anyone else within his vicinity. They were familiar, and before everything went down, their relationship had been comfortable, even amicable. Not having to overcome distrust and animosity was a major stepping stone toward building peace.

Seeing Pein and Konan again had been awkward at first, with no more secrets between them, but eventually became sort of pleasant. This would be their second trip since Naruto and Pein had come to a tentative truce on the battlefield, and this time Sakura was actually looking forward to it—even if the thought of staying in that wet, dreary city for a month was less than thrilling. The city may still be dark and depressing, but one thing that had changed was its leader. Like Itachi, it seemed as if a great burden had been lifted from Pein's shoulders with Madara's downfall. He wasn't as detached anymore. He seemed to have woken from a deep sleep and finally taken a good, long look around himself. Sakura had a feeling maybe Nagato had finally come out from wherever he'd been hidden all these years. Konan apparently thought so as well, for she had taken to calling him by his name more often than by the title he gave himself. He didn't seem to mind.

No one thought it would work at first. Trying to create peace with Rain and its 'deified' leader appeared to be taking Naruto's renowned idealism too far. Many believed it would fail with dire consequences. But Naruto had an uncanny power to make people believe in him and enlist in his causes. Sometimes he seemed more like a miracle-worker than a shinobi. Even knowing this about him, to Sakura and everyone else it had seemed almost impossible. But as he'd done time after time, he made it work somehow. They were moving forward. It felt like the dawn of a new era.

"Well, gud luckh," Kiba slurred. His head lolled forward again, hitting the table with a soft thump. He was out like a light.

"Thanks," she told the now-unconscious shinobi. She rose from Deidara's lap and he stood as well. Careful not to step on any shinobi passed-out along the way, they quietly left the Hokage tower.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the birdsong coming from the nearby trees seemed almost too loud in the silent streets. Sakura leaned against Deidara as they walked, a contented smile on her face as she watched little specks of dust kicked up by their boots glow for a moment in the streaks of sunlight before floating away on the air. She grasped his hand, swinging them a little as they walked. Fingers intertwined, she observed their flesh-colored nails, the blackening of the ring jutsu having faded and grown out over several weeks. She was glad they had returned to normal. Her time in Akatsuki had permanently marked her in other, less visible ways.

It hadn't all been bad, though. She had even formed some relationships she would loosely describe as friendships. Most of all, she had discovered a kind of love she never thought she would find, turning her life in a wonderful new direction. She regretted nothing, and in the end, she was grateful for the experience.

"I'm pretty tired," Deidara remarked, cutting through her thoughts. He glanced down at her with his usual smirk. "But I'm also kinda hungry, yeah."

Now that he mentioned it, food did sound like a good idea. "Hm, I am too. Want some breakfast when we get home?" After a moment she added, "I'll make bakudan."

"Mm, my favorite," Deidara said, blue eyes lighting up at the mention of the bomb-shaped, stuffed rice balls.

Sakura arched a brow at him. "I know."

His grin softened, and he affectionately trailed his knuckles between her shoulder blades as he leaned down slightly to kiss her temple. "Love you," he murmured into her hair.

Her smile widened playfully. "I know."

Deidara chuckled, and his fingers trailed down to the small of her back, where they continued to move in light circles. They walked another block before he tilted his chin musingly and said, "I've changed my mind. Breakfast can wait."

She looked up at him curiously. "You just want to go to bed then?"

"Hmm…bed, yes. Sleep, no."

Sakura let out a mirthful, laughing squeal as he scooped her up into his arms. With a flash of that crooked grin she loved so much, he leapt onto a low-hanging roof and sprinted with her toward home.

The End

"We come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly."

Sam Keen