Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or the characters contained therein, they belong to Masashi Kishimoto who is kind enough to let fans write fiction. I make no profit from this nor do I intend to.

A/N: I'm still working on edits for chapter 29 of Simple Things. But, as I'd mentioned in Paths I'll be posting a couple one-shots here until I can post the next chapter. This one-shot is like 'Paths' in that it's not my usual style but it was a still a lot of fun to write. :) Consequently it's also one of my favorites. Enjoy!

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Festivals, Fireworks, and Fuzzies

"Come on, Sakura!" the blonde woman exclaimed in frustration. "How often do we get to go out and act like civilians for the evening?"

The pink haired young woman sighed and set her mug of tea down on the table. "Hardly ever."

She and Ino were currently sitting in her kitchen, debating whether or not to attend the midsummer festival. It was about to begin and Sakura had been staunchly refusing to go since Ino had first brought it up. All in all she was starting to get tired of discussing it.

"So why are you dragging your feet? I thought you actually liked this festival…"

"I don't know; it all seems so silly somehow…"

"C'mon Sakura. We're seventeen, finally the right age to really enjoy this festival!" Ino glanced at her friend from the corner of her eye, a sneaking suspicion growing in her mind. "This wouldn't have anything to do with my comments yesterday, would it?"

"What?! No!!" Sakura exclaimed a little too quickly to be entirely genuine.

"Aw, Sakura… I was only pointig out the reality of the situation. I'm sure that deep down…" The blonde woman took in her former rival's faintly pained expression and sighed in frustration, realizing that she probably shouldn't have tainted her friend's most cherished childhood remembrances. Not that she had intended to, it had just sort of happened and she had been apologizing since. "Look, forget I said anything, okay? For all I know I'm wrong and maybe you will…"

Before Ino could go further Sakura nodded, hastily giving in. "Fine, fine, let me get dressed and we'll go." She had known she would give in eventually – it was still her favorite festival and a small part of her couldn't help but hope. Ever since getting over her silly childhood crush on Sasuke she had found herself thinking about the other men in her life and consequently the festival and its traditions.

The pink haired woman rose from her kitchen table and disappeared into her bedroom. She reappeared dressed in her new yukata, red with silver embroidered birds in flight.

"Ooo, very nice!" Ino grinned at her friend. She knew that because Sakura had recently purchased a new yukata it wouldn't take too much persuading to get her to don the new garment, regardless of any disparaging remarks she may have made. "Now let's go! I want to check out the shinobi games."

Sakura groaned. "I should have known." She fixed her friend with a pointed stare. "You know those games are near impossible and few even bother anymore, right?"

The blonde woman blushed. "Yeah, I know, but I was kind of hoping that this year…" she trailed off and her friend took pity on her and let it drop – after all, all girls in the village couldn't help but secretly hope. Unlike almost all girls in the village, Sakura once had good reason to hope, though by now she had all but given it up as a lost cause.

Receiving one of the silly little shinobi animal plushies was one of the biggest honors any female in the village could receive. Traditionally the men of Konoha competed against each other at the various carnival games – the winners earned colorful stuffed puffs of fluff affectionately referred to as fuzzies. Each game awarded a different colored fuzzy, and if a man was skillful or lucky enough to collect one of every color he could trade them in for a large stuffed animal to be given to his favorite girl. Or if he was unable to complete all of the game he could distribute his accumulated fuzzies to the girl or girls of his choosing. Due to the skill involved in obtaining these prizes, it was considered an honor to be given a fuzzy and an even higher honor to receive one of the stuffed animals.

Because shinobi had huge advantages on traditional festival games they were banned from competing with the civilians. Instead, they were given a whole gamut of incredibly difficult challenges of their own. The shinobi games were consequently nearly impossible to complete and there were few in the village who could actually win all of them and only perhaps a handful of those who actually would bother with the rather long and involved process. This of course made the shinobi fuzzies – graced with little fabric forehead protectors – all the more desirable and the ultimate fuzzy, obtained after winning all of the games, the most sought after item of the festival.

The two young women leisurely made their way to the area that had been roped off for the festival, each excited at the prospect of possibly receiving a fuzzy or – and neither of them had any reason to expect one – an ultimate fuzzy, though usually only one was awarded each year, if at all. Regardless they entered the already crowded streets and casually headed to the portion of the festival devoted to the games, specifically the shinobi games.

~*~*~*~

She sighed as she settled herself under a large tree toward the top of a fairly steep and deserted hill on the edge of the area devoted to the festival, away from the noise and crowds. The night had been long and, for the most part, enjoyable. Sakura had sampled more food than she could ever have thought possible to eat in one evening and watched her friends compete at selected shinobi games. Much to Ino's disappointment it did not appear as though anyone was going for an ultimate fuzzy that year, which was fine by Sakura since she was positive she wasn't going to receive one. Ino on the other hand had several prospects, one or two of whom might, with practice, actually be able to pull off the nearly impossible feat and present her with the much sought after prize.

As she relaxed under the tree she watched the people, both civilians and shinobi, interact with each other in what seemed to be a simple dance, though she knew from experience that up close it was really quite complex. Slowly couples began to emerge from the crowd – looking for comfortable places to settle themselves for the fireworks display signaling the end of the festival. Inwardly she was happy to have removed herself from the throng of people before the men and boys started to single companions out for the show.

She was fairly certain that none of the anxiously searching young shinobi were looking for her, not after what had happened the last time she had tried dating. When all was said and done the man in question had ended up severely injured. Not because a disapproving Naruto or Sasuke had been unleashed on him, but because the letch had tried something very foolish with the highly skilled and volatile kunoichi, earning a trip to the hospital for his troubles and a hard learned lesson about trying to take advantage of a kunoichi after she had consumed a couple sakes too many.

She sighed to herself and refocused her gaze back on the people below her. From her well placed seat she could sit back, relax and watch the pre-show show. While she watched the people move through the festival her mind wandered, returning to one of her favorite childhood memories. Despite Ino's disparaging remark she still clung to the recollection. Completely lost in her thoughts she failed to notice the man stealthily making his way up the hill with two bottles of juice to join her.

"Yo."

She almost jumped from her skin at hearing her former sensei's greeting. "Kakashi!" She looked up at the man casually leaning against her tree. "What are you doing here? I've never seen you at a festival before, much less this one."

He smiled and gazed down at her, taking in her new yukata. "You look nice tonight." He bent slightly to get a better look at the embroidery in the slowly fading light, handing her a bottle of juice as he did so. "Are those plovers?"

She flushed a little as she accepted the juice, not expecting him to compliment her on her appearance. "Um, thank you, and yes I think the woman at the shop mentioned that the birds were plovers… She said that she did so many that she felt as though she had done a thousand, though she had really only done about a hundred and fifty or so…" she trailed off feeling a little flustered. She knew he never participated in the village festivals and probably either didn't know about the tradition of watching the fireworks display with a special someone or didn't really care. Regardless, she couldn't help but feel a little unexpected thrill for having him there with her, even if he was her former sensei and it wasn't the real couple deal.

"So what are you doing by yourself way up here? I thought this was your favorite festival." He surprised her again by lightly settling himself next to her on the ground under the tree, making it clear that he intended to sit with her for a while rather than make one of his usual fly by appearances.

"Oh! It is, er well it was…" she trailed off uncomfortably, not wanting to really think about it much. She really didn't want to deal with people just then. "Um, I felt like getting away from the crowds for a while… and, well, I also wanted to find a good spot to watch the fireworks before they were all taken…"

"Shouldn't you be down there so someone can invite you to watch the fireworks with him?" he asked with no trace of humor or sarcasm in his voice, leading her to believe that he was genuinely surprised to find her by herself.

After a moment's startled thought she blushed realizing that he actually did know about the traditions associated with the festival and had still chosen to join her. Granted, just because he had sat down to have a drink with her didn't guarantee that he would stay with her for the fireworks.

"No," she shook her head a little too vigorously. "No, there's no one down there," she gestured at the slowly thinning crowd below them, "looking for me, I'm sure."

He chuckled at her misplaced modesty and chose not to contradict her as his gaze flicked between several shinobi moving determinedly though the disbanding festival below them. As Kakashi's eye unintentionally lingered on one of the young men, the man in question must have sensed that someone was looking at him and glanced up to find just the woman he had been searching for. The young shinobi's face brightened momentarily before he took note of just whom she was sitting with; quickly his face fell and he turned to hurry away into the crowd.

Kakashi turned his attention back to Sakura, examining her from out of the corner of his eye. "I see."

She turned to look at him, picking up on a tone she couldn't quite identify in his voice. After a moment she gave up trying to discern his motives and returned to sipping her juice and watching the crowds. The pink haired woman tried hard not to wonder if he was intending to stay and watch the fireworks with her, but found her mind straying inevitably in that direction, and to her surprise found that a small part of her hoped he would.

After a few moments of companionable silence he surprised her once again by speaking. "I seem to remember a certain kunoichi who pouted for weeks at having to miss this festival due to a month long mission when she was younger…"

She slapped his shoulder lightly and her cheeks colored slightly. "I did not!"

He laughed knowing that she knew very well that she had done her best to make his life as miserable as possible for missing the festival when she was thirteen.

Feeling a little guilty, she sighed. "Okay, so maybe just a little… But it was my favorite festival…"

He chuckled but still had to wonder about her apparent change in sentiment toward the festival; she had been one determined little kunoichi. "It's no longer your favorite then?"

She started a little, having not realized that she had used the past tense. "Oh, er… well I guess I don't know. It was…"

He waited for a moment before prompting her, sensing that she wanted to talk about it even though she seemed reluctant. "But?"

Sakura glanced up at him feeling surprised. "Well… it's silly really. I made the mistake of explaining to Ino just why I am so fond of this festival and she… well, she pointed something out that I suppose I could say I probably always knew, but never wanted to admit or accept…" she trailed off thoughtfully for a couple minutes, lost in her own memories.

He waited silently, knowing she would eventually tell him what was on her mind. Kakashi had known her too long to miss the signals. A few moments later, his patience was rewarded.

"When I was four my parents brought me to this festival for the first time. I had a great time wandering around with them, watching the games and the people and eating all different kinds of food. I don't remember exactly how but I separated from them. I wasn't particularly concerned about it; it had happened before and they always managed to find me in the end. Instead of worrying about it, I saw this huge crowd that had gathered around one of the booths at the shinobi games. Hmm, now that I think of it, the crowd was probably what lured me away from my parents in the first place." She paused for a moment or two trying to remember if the crowd had indeed lured her away from her parents or if it could have been something else.

The silver haired man stayed silent, ready to listen when she continued.

"I didn't know what was going on, but I made my way to the front of the crowd to watch. There were two men in black and gray uniforms wearing white, black and red masks – I didn't know about ANBU then of course – competing against each other at the games. I don't really remember what they looked like, just my impressions of them and the fact that the one who seemed to be winning wore a mask that was some sort of a dog, or maybe it was a wolf, I don't know. Anyway, they were ANBU and, of course, absolutely amazing at the games. The skill, speed and grace that they used to complete those challenges… just a whole different league than the others. I don't know if it's because of the fact that it's a memory or if they really were that good, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone as skilled since. They were just the coolest people that I had ever seen."

He chuckled a little and she flushed, having forgotten that Kakashi had once been in ANBU himself. It was something she had only recently learned – by accident while healing a nasty wound on his upper arm – about her generally tight-lipped former sensei.

"I remember being so captivated that I followed them from game to game with the rest of the crowd. At some point – I'm kind of fuzzy on the details now – but one of them noticed me and must have realized that I had wandered away from my parents. He went out of his way to make sure to take me with them while he and his opponent made their way down the long stretch of game booths. But he did it in such a way that made it seem like he wasn't doing anything of the sort… but thinking back, I can see now that he did.

"I suppose any other little girl may have been intimidated or scared of them…considering that they were ANBU I probably should have been… but they were both so nice to me that it never even entered my mind…" She trailed off once again lost in her thoughts.

After a long couple of moments a thoughtful Kakashi prompted her, beginning to suspect that she wasn't going to finish her story. "That seems like a very nice memory." He tried carefully. "I don't see what Ino could possibly have said to ruin it for you."

Sakura turned to look at him, having forgotten that he was there. "Oh, er… well just as the two ANBU got to the final game, my parents showed up. I have to admit that after they got over their shock at finding me with such dangerous men they were very gracious… I on the other hand was… less than gracious, wanting to stay with the nice man who had been keeping an eye on me and his competetor. He had even promised me an ultimate fuzzy when he won one." She chuckled mostly to herself. "Irrationally, I guess I grew more attached to him in such a short time than I should have. Granted, the promise of one of those silly stuffed animals probably endeared him to me more than anything else he had done that evening. But still…"

"What happened when your parents took you away? Surely he must have said or done something?" he asked, unable to help himself.

She nodded and flushed a little at having told him almost the whole story. "Um, he did. He gave me the fuzzy he had just won – to get me to stop crying I'm sure – and promised me he would see me at the next festival and he'd make sure to win me an ultimate fuzzy then." She sighed. "Only he didn't come to the festival…"

"ANBU is a very demanding position Sakura. I'm sure he probably had a mission he couldn't get out of or something."

She laughed. "You would defend him, Mr. Chronically Late…" She bumped her shoulder against his with a smile before allowing the expression to slip from her face to be replaced with a bit of a frown. "But I didn't see him the next year, the year after, or the year after that…"

"He could have been in the hospital, border patrol or gate duty…" He suggested, though, he suspected that she wasn't really listening to him.

"I'd entered the academy by then and had learned a little of just who ANBU were and thought that maybe, as you said he had just plain been too busy… But another year passed and Ino and I discovered Sasuke… I kept coming to the festival in hopes of seeing him again, regardless of my crush on Sasuke, if, for no other reason, to thank him for having such an impact on my life. I think I decided I wanted to be a kunoichi because of him and the things shinobi did for the village…" She trailed off again, thinking about the unknown ANBU operative.

He let her think, lost in his own thoughts for a few moments before realizing that she still hadn't told him what it was that Ino had said to upset her.

"Well, it sounds as though you really are fond of this festival, I can't imagine what Ino might have said to change that…"

She turned to study his face for a moment, looking for a hint of anything other than sincerity to his words. With a sigh she turned away from him, just as the first couple fireworks exploded in the sky she shook her head. "Ino said that the reason I didn't see him again was that he probably died while on a mission. Not many make it out of ANBU alive and if he was really that good… Well, chances are he was one of the best, assigned to the most dangerous missions and therefore more than likely long dead." The pink haired young woman seemed to deflate a little as she kept her eyes on the night sky, watching the bright lights explode in brief bursts of color.

Startled, he stared at her for a couple minutes, ignoring the beautiful display and the fact that he should have taken his leave before the fireworks had started. He hadn't meant to allow himself to stay with her so long, just long enough to keep her less desirable admirers at bay.

"I hadn't really thought about it, but the more I think about it now the more likely it seems and… it's a bit depressing, is all."

He debated with himself over saying something to her, and ended up spending the remains of the firework show trying to make up his mind. Finally, as the colored sparks from the finale were fading from the sky he rose to his feet and reached down to tousle her hair. "You don't know that he didn't make it out of ANBU. Contrary to popular belief some people do make it out…" He smiled at her surprised expression. "I did."

While she was searching for something to say, the voice of her blonde friend interrupted. Unable to stop herself, she turned in the direction of her friend's voice and found Ino trudging up the hill with a familiar shinobi in tow.

"Sakura! I've been looking all over for you! Where have you been?"

Hastily the pink haired woman rose to her feet, glancing at the spot her former sensei had occupied she found it empty and both their juice bottles gone. She sighed to herself, having wished she could ask Kakashi more about his time in ANBU. When she had discovered his tattoo, he had dodged all her questions and had refused to even admit that he had been a part of the mysterious group.

"Nowhere, really. I've been up here watching the fireworks." She nodded a greeting at the familiar young man, though she couldn't quite remember his name.

He smiled in return and took hold of Ino's hand, obviously quite pleased with himself for having snagged the popular blonde's attention for the evening.

"What, alone?" Ino asked incredulously. "There were at least four guys looking for you earlier…"

Trying her best not to allow her eyes to widen in surprise Sakura covered with a negligent gesture. "I wasn't by myself, but I didn't see anyone looking for me."

Ino shot her a questioning glance, wanting to ask for more details but figuring Sakura wouldn't dish while she had her escort for the evening with her. "Oh we'll have to talk about that tomorrow then…" The blonde woman's escort pulled her hand shyly and she flushed a little. "Um, well I just wanted to find you before I left…"

Sakura smiled, more to herself than to her friend and waved them off. "I'll see you tomorrow Ino." She watched as her former rival slipped through the dispersing crowd with her chosen companion and turned to go back to her apartment.

Slowly the pink haired young woman made her way home, lost in her thoughts. For some reason her mind kept wandering back to Kakashi's comment about some people making it out of ANBU and strangely enough, it made her feel a little bit better.

Tiredly she entered her apartment, more than ready to sleep. She made directly for her bedroom, ignoring all the little things she should do before going to bed, having only one thought on her mind. She glanced at her window in passing as she started to shed her clothes and was surprised to find a stuffed animal sitting next to her well loved fuzzie on the window still – it hadn't been there before she left for the festival.

Curiously she moved to the window, left open to let in the fresh evening air, and picked up the plushie. Sakura gasped in surprise and almost dropped the slightly faded ultimate fuzzy.