Warning: Spoilers for the current Naruto manga

Stages of Grief

The second time Sakura manages to find Kakashi, he is already dead. At first she doesn't recognize the broken body, with eyes blacked darker than any Uchiha's had been. He is stiff, and beat up, and not Kakashi.

"Oh...oh god...no." The only vocalizations that she can manage are choked and muted. She feels like she did during the first chuunin exams- clumsy, overwhelmed, and totally unprepared. She runs forward and trips over rubble. The rest of the distance to her former sensei is covered on her hands and knees. She grabs his face, rubs the exposed cheeks. He shouldn't have been alone, and her breathing has started to shudder.

"Kakashi sensei!" Naruto's pained cry is barely a whisper in her state of shock, but Sakura dutifully swallows her feelings like she always does and puts on her brave face. She'll save the rest for later, when she's in her own company and it's okay for her to be weak again. She holds Naruto and wonders what she'll tell Sasuke, or if she'll ever have the chance to.

She sits with Kakashi in what used to be the morgue, hours later. The hospital was one of the structures that had partially survived Pein's wrath. She knew she should be out there with the others, aiding the homeless, traveling to Sand for assistance, taking care of the injured.

She just can't let him be alone again, though.

She wants to bath his face, repair his more unsightly wounds. She has neither running water, nor chakra, so instead she holds his fingers like she did when she was twelve and scared, and apologizes over and over for not being there. Maybe she could've saved him, maybe it wouldn't have been too late if only she had known...

Her tears are the only warm thing in the whole damn place.

The damage is so extensive the services for the dead are postponed. She visits his holding case everyday, stares at the name on the door. Rings form under her eyes, she forgets to eat, and it seems like she's always running late. Naruto frets, Sai makes derogatory comments, and Tsunade, recognizing all too well the trademarks of grief, simply let's her be.

It's the day Sakura considers using one of Kakashi's late excuses that she recognizes her sensei's eccentricities for what they truly were. She studies her tired eyes, thin physique, and knows that she's being eaten from the inside- just like him.

A peek at old team rosters and a trip to the memorial confirm her suspicions.

She finds a worn patch of grass in front of the large engraved stone, and it's so easy to picture him standing there for hours that it makes her choke up all over again. She can't fathom ever being able to let go of the overwhelming sense of loss. She wishes more than ever he were there. He'd find some stupid anecdote about the little engine that could, or a legendary shinobi- who you always knew was really him- or even his stupid porn to cheer her up. He'd pat her on the head and even though he was always thinking of the boys, she'd feel like she was special somehow. They were the ones who knew how it felt to be left behind, wasn't that how she always felt about it?

Except, now, he had left her too.

Gai finds her crumbled and defeated, lips trembling as she stutters out the procedures for medical jutsu, her fingers clenching the dirt like she was holding on to the edge of the world.

He pries her away from the ground, and let's her calm her herself by degrees. She can't speak, all her feelings defying verbalization. He places a heavy hand on her shoulder in understanding.

"He wouldn't want you to repeat his mistakes."

Fresh tears slide down her cheeks, and she grits her teeth. It was too late on that score.

"I couldn't save Sasuke. I couldn't stop Naruto. I... I couldn't help him. I've failed." She whispers "Mistakes? I've already made them."

Gai looks surprised at her interpretation, but he leaves it. "He always considered you his brightest student." He offers, and then leads her away from the memorial.

They're all cleaning out his apartment- Kurenai, and Gai and Naruto and she- when they find his will. It's obvious he hadn't expected to use it anytime soon, as the paper it's written on is coffee-stained and wrinkled, the lettering haphazard.

He bequeaths his flawless shinobi record to Gai, his Icha Icha books and a pair of old goggles to Naruto, his weapons and scrolls to Sasuke (this makes her wonder when he wrote it), and his best leather gloves and a small, old-fashioned medical kit to Sakura (and with a pang, she realizes it was after the second bell test).

It comes with a few lines of advice. He tells Gai that they'll continue where they left off later, Naruto to stop attacking so hastily and that ramen was not a food group. He tells Sasuke to remember what he said. He tells Sakura, in characteristic vagueness, to let it go and to please water his plants.

"Those goggles and that medical kit belonged to his old teammates." Kurenai confesses.

Sakura punches a hole in the wall and storms out of the apartment.

She goes straight to the training field, puts on her ill-fitting inheritance, and starts demolishing the earth. She is rage incarnate pounding rocks, trees, anything. Let it go? Let it go?! Rich, coming from the teacher who stood hours staring at a rock! She's panting, and sweating, her lungs burning, and still she pushes herself. When she exhausts her chakra supply, she goes for the dummies. It grows dark before she finally collapses in a heap of exhaustion. For a second, she wishes for Sasuke, because she can't deal with Naruto's coddling or Sai's antagonism. Sasuke would have known what to say- something minimal and profound. Something to shock her out of the turmoil she felt helpless in. Disgusted, she pushes the longing away.

Someone approaches an hour later, and she can tell from the footfalls and the chakra signature that it's Tsunade.

"I was wondering when you'd get to this point."

The apprentice growls. "Don't analyze me."

Her master sighs. "Sakura, why are you so angry?"

Sakura practically spits her answer out. "Because I never realized what a goddamned hypocrite he was! Let it go! Is that honestly what he thinks I needed to hear?"

"Isn't it?" Tsunade counters.

Sakura sits up, anger lashing up again like a storm. "How about 'you've grown strong, Sakura'? How about 'I should have paid more attention to you?' 'I'm sorry I was never there for you'!? What about-" her voice cracks and then reassembles itself – "I'm proud of you?"

She squeezes her eyes shut because she's sick of crying, but that's all she can seem to do these days. She is shocked when she feels Tsunade's arms around her- the older woman never was one for affection.

"They never leave us with the loose ends tied up. You have to do that for yourself."

Sakura cries hard into her shoulder. "I h-hate him! He wasn't s-supposed to LEAVE too, and I still c-c-c-ouldn't, I couldn't..."

Tsunade hushes her like her mother used to, smoothes her hair back. "You can't save everyone. He was right Sakura- you have to move on. He already gave you permission."

Her eyes ache and her skin feels like it's stretched too tight over her face, but there's a weight that's eased a bit, so Sakura is able to sleep once again.

Days pass, and she puts his forehead protector away. She had been intending to wear it when she avenged his murder- but now, she thinks it would be better he had it. The muscles of her face feel less tense, and life starts to move again, instead of the motionlessness she had been mired in.

By the time his funeral rolls around, she's able to smile again, albeit more muted than before. She places Kakashi's forehead protector on his grave, and shows him the new gloves she had made from his old ones, and how well the medical kit fits in her hip pouch.

Naruto seems relieved, and for once Sai's mouth doesn't piss her off. She lets her fingers trail over the picture on the stone table, and closes her eyes.

"Thank you, sensei, for the lesson."