A/N: I apologize for the delay. Thank you everyone for your patience and kind support these past two years. Because of you writing this story out has been an absolute pleasure. Now please enjoy the last chapter!

Winner Takes All

Chapter Eleven: The Winner

For this I know for certain,

Even past the edge of space,

And beyond the end of time,

I will love you.

Konoha Forest – 6:00 a.m.

A thick fog rolled into Konoha that morning.

It was not uncommon for fog to overtake the village during the rainy season. Especially during the early hours before the sun rose to warm up the sky. The wide expanse of land as well as the higher forest grounds made it natural for moisture to gather in the cooler nights then disappear as the day heated up. While it was predictable for the more ambitious ninja to rise with the sun and train in the forests and fields, it was common knowledge that those who attempted to leave their homes before dawn would not be able to see three feet past their nose. Whole buildings, trees, and lamp posts became swallowed up in the thick, rolling gray – and even some people have been known to get lost until the sun rose to light up the world, and clear away the confusing mist.

Then there always were the unfortunate few who had been assigned missions at the ungodly pre-dawn hours, and for whom suddenly having the ability to see or not became of no consequence. Every team went through this experience. Especially those teams that created too much ruckus in recent months, and were duly disciplined by the village by serving out missions other hard-working shinobi would not want. Ideally, these were for the genin teams.

Kakashi rubbed the tired muscles from the back of his neck and let out a wide yawn. It had been a long time since he stalked across knee-deep fog to some dark, unseeable section of the forest. It must have been years since he had been forced to roll out of bed so early that even the bed springs were to too tired to creak in protest. This was not for some fun espionage and break-into-the-fortress type mission either. Oh no, the series of missions for the day would be of the mundane clean-out-the-gutters and escort-people-across-the-street type. Troublesome teams were required to atone for their delinquent ways by completing a series of increasingly mundane tasks. The idea was that the genin would then become so bored of their tasks that they would break down and vow to never cause havoc again.

Never once in his ambitious years as a genin or chunin had Kakashi ever been compelled to do such thankless work. It was only during his older years as jounin-sensei that the younger, brasher, more energetic and fool-hardy version of Team Seven required him to become quite familiar with the early morning fog.

The new expanded version of Team Seven was just as loud and chaos-worthy as before, but ever since Sasuke returned as the prodigal son, and Naruto saved the village (multiple times) from destruction, the village leaders gave them more lee-way than before, and Kakashi assumed they would never be dragged back to community service work again. Surely the now more mature and refined members of the team would never need to be reprimanded for screwing up and costing the village a hefty amount in damage repair, right? But maturity was a subjective thing. And oh… how he had been wrong.

He moved about in a half-sleep daze. On a more subconscious level he was aware of the unseen dead leaves and moss that rolled beneath his feet. Each step suddenly became an act of faith as familiar ground in the daylight suddenly became very unfamiliar in the fog. It was a strange sensation watching his feet get sucked into the shimmering mist only to hit solid ground – not knowing where the ground might actually be located.

Somewhere far off an owl hooted away in the distance, while the crickets whirred softly in the morning dark. The tall shadowed trees of the forest were dark paper cut-outs with their silhouettes. Their every leaf etched out a clear, sharp mark against the pale sky above as the branches curved up in graceful boughs. The sounds of a familiar brook murmured nearby, hidden from sight by the underbrush. Directly to his right, Kakashi could pick up the sharp scent of a rabbit that occupied the area just moments before. The sound of a snapping twig alerted his senses and echoed off into the cool air. Perhaps the delinquent members of his team had already gathered at the meeting spot.

However, when Kakashi stepped into the forest clearing he found that he was alone.

"Hm," he said, taking in his quiet surroundings. There were no loud shouts of accusations for being late aimed in his direction, nor was there brooding mass of darkness tearing at his soul. In fact, there was no sign of any human being in the immediate forest area. For the first time, in a long time, Kakashi was absolutely the first person to arrive for the mission. He half-expected cheers and fan-fare to break out at this rare occurrence.

Kakashi stepped up to a tree stump and used it as a footrest. A trail of fungi crept up the side like flat half-moon steps.

Kakashi idly ran a hand through his hair, still feeling the afterglow of languor and contentment running down his spine, and through every muscle of his body. As if each muscle had recently been put through a good stretch. Memories of soft lips and quiet whispers lingered in his ear. The blood in his veins nearly simmered with satisfaction at the thought and Sakura's voice remained like a faint hum in his mind. He dwelled on these thoughts and the minutes passed by as the jounin patiently waited for the arrival of his team. Waiting… it was a novel experience.

One memory melded into another as the forest became a little brighter with the passing time. A bird broke out into a clear warble as the first hint of the sun's golden ray pierced through the dark forest canopy from above. More time passed and Kakashi idly counted the rings of the tree stump as the forest became brighter – brighter as the dark fog caught the rays of light and turned into a shimmering mist. Suddenly trees picked up their hue and texture as branches took on their brown color and the leaves waved above with green abandon. The crickets rose up to a deafening din as the birds sang their sweet fullest.

It was a cacophony of life and sound, and Kakashi was caught in the center of the vibrant festivity – forced to stand still and wait. Somewhere nearby a frog splashed into a stream.

Then finally after what seemed like a small eternity, Kakashi felt the approach from a member of his team. The most feminine member, to be precise.

Sakura stepped into the forest clearing. The sunrays dazzled in the pink shimmers of her hair. It might have been a beautiful and ethereal moment if it weren't for the decidedly messy and sleep-worn look about her clothes and face. A person could not have rolled out of bed with more wrinkled clothes if they tried. They briefly made eye-contact, and there was a subtle shift in the air. Both of their looks seemed to have said the same thing… that yes, here they were. Alone. Again.

Sakura rubbed a sleepy eye then opened her mouth in a wide yawn, taking her time to stretch her arms high above her head before politely walking up to Kakashi with her hands clasped behind her back. She tilted her head in question towards him. "Where are the others?"

Now there was the question for the century.

Kakashi glanced at their surroundings, taking a quick sweep of the forest. There were only two chakra signatures he could sense within a mile. His and Sakura's. Even if the others were on their way he should have been able to pick up a hint of their presence.

"I don't know," he admitted. To be honest, he was about to ask Sakura the exact same thing.

Sakura became a little more alert at that. "You mean you don't know where the other half of the team is located?"

The way she said it made it seem like Kakashi made a habit of losing members of his team in strange places – much like lost toys. Never to be heard from again. He wasn't that irresponsible. Though while Kakashi racked his brain for answers as to where the other members of the team might have been located on this particular day, all he could bring up where memories of the time he spent with Sakura over the past week. This entire situation was a problem he never encountered before. The team always arrived first and waited for him in the past. For them to not be here… well, it was a little more than disconcerting.

Sakura leaned in with a conspiratorial whisper. "We are in the meeting spot, right?"

"There's only one meeting spot," he emphasized.

"Not for all missions," Sakura said with a frown.

"For these types of missions we do." Kakashi stopped counting the rings on the surface of the tree-stump (getting lost around number one-hundred-forty-five), and turned his attention to Sakura, but to his surprise she was not looking at him. She was gazing up at the pale sky instead as if trying to divine an answer from the blush-pink clouds. Kakashi also glanced up, wondering what sort of other-worldly insight Sakura might have been gaining by gazing at the sunrise.

Suddenly Sakura's eyes went wide. "Wait a minute," she said. "I think I remember Naruto mentioning he needed to be somewhere today."


"He just said it was something important."

Probably to hassle Tsunade into letting him sit in the Hokage's chair again. Naruto made this trip a bi-weekly event. Most likely to remind the older woman that he still very much wanted to become Hokage someday. Kakashi walked in for a mission report a couple months ago only to find Naruto spinning around on the chair in glee; while Tsunade leaned back in the opposite seat – feet propped up on the desk, and swigging back a drink. He suspected that Tsunade only tolerated these obnoxious visits from the blonde because somewhere deep down, she had a soft spot for the boy… and because ever since Naruto reached the legal age of purchasing alcohol, he would always bring her sake.

Kakashi rubbed a hand through his hair. The movement made impressive shadows against the sunbeams. "That still doesn't explain where Sasuke and Sai have gone."

Sakura agreed. It was not like the uptight Uchiha to miss a mission (any mission), and while Sai had the ability to make a majority of the team feel incredibly awkward at times, he had become something akin to the adoptive team member they didn't want to leave behind.

Sakura lightly touched Kakashi on the arm to get his attention. "These are supposed to be D-rank leveled missions, right?"

They shared another glance in which a long pause followed.

Kakashi couldn't help but smile, despite himself. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked.

"That we should knock out these missions then grab lunch later? Yes." Sakura said, rubbing her stomach with hunger. "I could really go for some dango and tea. This time you pay."

Kakashi studiously ignored that last comment. It was actually Sakura's turn to pay this time, but he thought it wise not to bring up the subject. "Maybe we'll even run into the others, hm?"

As it turned out… Kakashi and Sakura would not run into the other members of their team today, but it certainly was a nice thought.

Hyuuga Household – 10:00 a.m.

Naruto wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve, then resolutely placed his hands on his knees in a sitting position that he thought must have been formal. To his left, Hinata poured three cups of steaming tea at the low table, only looking up to offer a kind and encouraging smile. Directly across the table sat a man with great bulk and a heavy presence – with something akin to pain on his usually stern and unreadable face. To Naruto's understanding, this was Hinata's father, Hyuuga Hiashi, and head of the Hyuuga clan.

The Hyuuga household was full of many fine things Naruto had never seen before. Even if the Hyuugas were minimalists in the way they dressed and decorated, there was no denying the fine quality they incorporated into every aspect of their lives. Hinata had to bashfully usher Naruto into the estate when he refused to wipe his feet on the doormat in fear that he would ruin the pristine rug with his muddy shoes.

Now they sat in a quiet room next to the garden. The embroidered seat cushion beneath his knees and the lacquered tea table were just other indications to Naruto that he was way out of his element. Which made him uncomfortable, and whenever Naruto was uncomfortable he had a tendency to lose judgment over what things were appropriate to say.

"Wow. You really screwed up in trying to get Hinata to marry Sasuke, didn't you?" Naruto blurted out.

Both Hinata and her father winced at that statement, but the moment of awkward discomfort smoothly disappeared in the next beat of silence. Somewhere in the distance, Naruto heard the thock of the bamboo fountain from outside. As he looked ahead, he had the eerie sensation that the older Hyuuga's eyes could see straight through him. They were white, pearly and blank. Just like Hinata's except not nearly as gentle or pretty.

Hinata's father cleared his throat. "I should have given more thought to the matter," he acknowledged.

"… and should have asked my opinion," Hinata whispered, as she put the tea down and took a seat next to Naruto. She managed to sit down much more gracefully than the way Naruto almost fell into the table the first time around.

"Yes," Hinata's father said. "It's a mistake that most definitely won't happen again."

Naruto only gave them both a wide, oblivious grin. As was his usual habit when he had nothing else to add.

Hiashi took a long sip of tea then cleared his throat a second time. A small tendril of steam from the cup like a silver wisp. "Excuse me…" Hiashi said, eyeing the boy with the bright orange jumpsuit – the lively color popped out from the muted grey of the walls. "But who are you again…?"

"Naruto," Hinata supplied quickly. "Remember, father? He's the one who beat Neji in the chuunin exams all those years ago. He also happens to be the container of the Nine-Tailed demon fox for the village, trained under the great Jiraiya-sama and Kakashi-sensei, and has saved Konoha from countless catastrophes."

"Oh, right." Hinata's father said, as if his extremely selective memory for the moment had suddenly been jogged up. "You're that guy."

"That's right!" Naruto exclaimed, sensing that now would be the perfect time to give his introduction. He stood up with a clatter. "My name is Uzumaki Naruto," he said, jabbing a thumb to his chest, "and someday I'm going to be the next Hokage."

After this declaration a silence fell, as the clan leader gave Naruto a severe look over. "I don't mean to be rude," Hinata's father said, quirking an eyebrow. "But how did you get into this estate?"

Through Hinata's urging, Naruto sat back down again and held a tea cup up to his face in a polite fashion. "Neji let him inside," Hinata answered, in her quiet voice. Which was true. Neji was the first to see Naruto arrive earlier that morning and opened the gate for him.

"And… what are you doing here?" Hiashi asked, giving the young man a scowl. Though deep down, he already sensed the most probable reason why.

"I'm here to ask for Hinata's hand in marriage." At this Naruto gave another broad grin and rubbed the back of his neck in an embarrassment, while Hinata offered a gentle smile.

Hiashi let out a sigh. It was just as he expected. "You've probably already heard this by now, but our last attempt to marry Hinata off did not go so well."

"That's only because the groom was a horrible jerk, and you tried to marry Hinata off to someone she didn't like."

Hinata nodded in agreement, holding on to Naruto's arm. "I happen to like this boy, father."

Hinata's father pinched the bridge of his nose, then let out another deep sigh. He could already sense where this was going.

"So… Naruto," Hinata's father began again, through a painful smile he tried his best to be polite. "What are your prospects?"

This question threw Naruto for a loop. "Prospects?"

"What sort of potential do you have?" Hinata supplied, in a gentle voice.

Naruto began fidgeting with the bottom hem of his shirt. "Oh! Well. I plan to become the Hokage someday," he repeated.

"That's a very ambitious goal," Hiashi said.

"Yeah," Naruto said, jabbing a thumb to his chest. "And I'm just the man to do it. I don't know if Hinata mentioned this before, but I happened to have single-handedly stopped the Akatsuki a few years back – a group of super strong mutant ninjas who terrorized the known shinobi-world."

"Hm." Hiashi said, taking another sip of tea.

"I've also learned the secret sage art of drawing chakra from outside natural sources, and using it to make really big wind-shurikens," Naruto said, spacing out his hands to indicate the size of the shurikens. "I call them Rasengon-shurikens."

"Ra…sen…gon - shurikens?" Hiashi asked.

"It's a master-level technique I managed to perfect by imbuing my wind element chakra into chakra-form manipulation when I was fifteen years old," Naruto explained. "Also…! I can summon frogs."

At that moment Naruto slapped his hand on the table. The tea cups clattered from the impact of his palm and a cloud of smoke poofed from his hand. A small red frog appeared by the sugar bowl, looking around the room with wide yellow eyes. He jumped near the silver tea spoons and ribbited a throaty bellow.

Hinata politely clapped at this small display, while Hiashi merely shooed the frog off the table until it scampered away. "Okay, so I'll admit… you have some potential when it comes to strength, but what about your bloodline? Do you come from a family with a respectable background?"

Hinata laid a comforting hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Naruto was orphaned when he was just a baby," she said sadly. She pulled out a handkerchief to dab her watery eyes.

"Yes, but actually…" Naruto said, perking up. "I've discovered that my father was the Fourth Hokage."

"Really?" Hinata said, putting the handkerchief away. "I never knew that."

"I didn't know that until recently, either," Naruto admitted.

"Impressive," was all Hinata's father muttered. "Now that I think of it, you do sort of look like him. It's all that spiky yellow hair you have," he said, motioning to Naruto's head.

Naruto just grinned a wide fox-grin. Pleased that someone would think that he held any resemblance at all to the former Hokage. Even if it actually was true. Beside him, Hinata simply smiled as she smoothed down her robe. There was also a pleased look on her face that Hinata's father could find no explanation for.

"Well, young man," Hinata's father pressed with a stern air. "What motto do you follow in everyday life? What sort of beliefs do you have?"

"I just hope to unite the nations in peace someday, prevent any future world wars, and stamp out all signs of evil and oppression," Naruto said modestly.

"He also has undying devotion for his friends," Hinata quipped.

"Oh, I see." Hiashi said. "I also would have accepted 'devotion to family' as an appropriate response."

Naruto tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit, suddenly feeling quite hot. Hinata held on to his arm to offer support.

"Naruto, I have one last question for you," Hiashi said finally. "And it's the most important question of all."

A long silence passed as Hiashi leaned down on the tea table. A heavy and tense air descended on the room as he fixed the boy with a serious glare. "Do you think you have what it takes to make my daughter happy?"

At this Naruto was most impassioned. Bright blue eyes snapped open, and a heat and determination radiated off his body that seemed as abundant as his enthusiastic energy.

"Sir, if you let me date your daughter I would make her the happiest woman in the world, and it would also make me the happiest man in the world," Naruto declared.

Hinata nearly swooned at this confession, but she did not faint. Instead she took one of Naruto's hands in a gentle grip. "It would make us both very happy, father." Hinata agreed.

At this, very small smile appeared on the corner of Hiashi's lips. As he reached for his tea and regarded the two over his cup, he wondered if Naruto would be willing to stay around long enough keep his daughter happy for a lifetime. Hiashi also began to ponder if he would be able to keep up with energetic grandchildren who ran around the estate with loud voices. While he drank down his cup with an air of supreme calm, he found himself becoming quite fond of the idea.

The Dango Stand – 12:00 p.m.

"Sweets for the sweet?" Kakashi asked, holding out two dango sticks.

Sakura accepted one, slumping into the outdoor chair with a heavy sigh. "Ughh. I never want to search for another cat, weed out another garden, or paint another fence again."

"Speaking of which, you have a tiny bit of paint on your face," Kakashi said. He flicked a strand of Sakura's hair out of the way then lightly motioned to the smudge by her nose. "I would have mentioned it earlier but I didn't want to embarrass you."

"You think I would be embarrassed from walking around all day with paint on my face?" Sakura scoffed.

Despite her words, Sakura snatched up a napkin and rubbed the paint away, checking her reflection in the metal surface of the dispenser. All the while, Kakashi leisurely pulled out his Icha Icha book and flipped through the more favorable passages. His dango lay forgotten on the table.

Having finished cleaning off her face… and cleaning off her dango, Sakura was quick to pick up on Kakashi's abandoned portion. She sidled next to him and smoothly reached for what was left. Quite frankly, Kakashi didn't care if Sakura grabbed the treat or not. He never cared for sweets, and in fact, only bought two knowing that Sakura would want another one later. But he thought her close proximity was nice, and whether or not he purposely left the second dango near his side in an attempt to lure her closer was something he would never admit.

Sakura gradually became very pensive between her second and third bite of food. Her brows furrowed down from deep thought.

She nudged Kakashi with her elbow. "Hey, don't you think it's strange that even though we've been out all day, we haven't seen any sign of the rest of Team Seven?"

"Hm. Yeah, that's a bit strange."

"I mean," Sakura said, waving the stick around. "You would think we would see some hint of them."

Kakashi flipped to another passage of his book. "They must have found something better to do with their time," he mused.

Then quite suddenly, a pleasant jolt shot through Kakashi's body. Sakura's hand was on his knee.

"Kakashi, look!" His eyes followed Sakura's arm as she pointed to the merchant stands across the street. There was a greater number of vendors than usual setting up their wares. From a quick glance, Kakashi took in the bright clothing and fans on sell. Several of the woman were studiously making small pastries to be fried, which when heated up would make moon cakes. Then hidden in the crates to the side he was almost certain there were fireworks. A great stack of them.

Kakashi lowered his book in surprise.

"Can you believe it?" Sakura said. "It's almost time for the Moon Viewing festival again. I'll be needing a new robe… I accidentally ripped my last one." She tugged at Kakashi's sleeve. "You could probably use a new robe, too."

Actually, Kakashi did not have any festival robes. It was the jounin's tradition to never to dress up for celebrations, but he did like the idea of Sakura wearing some pretty new outfit immensely. Just the memory of last year's festival with her dazzling smile nearly left him weak as his heart did summersaults.

"I guess it couldn't hurt to look," Kakashi agreed, and closed his book with a snap.

Yamanaka Flower Shop – 3:00 p.m.

The hours ticked by slowly in the flower shop, and each minute passed with the vigor of slow molasses. Ino watched with a gloomy face as the vendors set up their stands outside the shop window. Laughing jounin and chuunin cleared out the streets as groups of shinobi and civilians alike worked to place up lanterns and streamers over every building. There was a feeling of excitement in the air that was nearly as tangible as the children running around and playing along the roads. Ino remembered the days when she and Sakura would frolic through the marketplace during festival preparations and admire all the new things with anticipation.

Inoichi promised his daughter that she would be able to enjoy the night off after he settled some flower orders for the village. Every year the Moon Viewing Festival became the greatest source of revenue for the family business. The village always ordered a huge batch in an effort to decorate the streets and keep the feeling of festivity alive.

Unfortunately, this year the main man who had the power to help the flower shop by making an inordinate amount of flowers bloom was missing in action. The Yamanakas had not seen or heard from Captain Yamato ever since that last time he helped in the flower shop all those weeks ago. As Ino recalled, that was also the last time Sakura bothered to show her face around, too.

Ino frowned and fiddled restlessly with the pen in her hand. There would still be plenty of batches to keep the village looking alive and fresh, there just wouldn't be nearly enough close to the number of previous years. Ino considered the repercussions of selling less and making a smaller revenue, and decided that she did not like the projected consequences. Because it meant instead of buying three new pairs of shoes next month, she could only buy two. And that would certainly would have been a grave thing indeed.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door chime. The sweet smell of roasting chestnuts from outside wafted in with a draft before the door swung shut again. Ino heard the slow measured steps of the customer before she could see him around the tall vase of tiger lilies blocking the view.

Oh, it was Sai. The pale gloomy boy she had often seen hanging around Sakura's team at times. Ino had nothing especially against him, but only knew that he had one day crawled out of the dark shadows of Anbu to join the ranks of lesser mortals in the light – and that he had a strange thing for cut-off shirts that showed his stomach.

"Can I help you?" Ino asked, resting her chin in her hand. She regarded the boy with bored eyes, and waited impatiently as he scanned every nook and cranny of the shop before turning his attention back to the most important aspect of the room - her.

There was something very intriguing about the way his dark eyes took her in. Where Ino's eyes were pale and clear, she felt as if his eyes were of the darkest hues. Like gazing into them held the same feeling of falling into an abyss.

"I need something that will impress a girl," Sai confessed.

"Oh ho ho," Ino suddenly lit up with a charming smile, and hid her devious chuckle behind one hand. If there was one thing she understood it was how to dabble with other people's business. "So there's a girl you fancy, hm? Tell me what she's like."

Ino leaned forward with a ready ear. She only said the last part so she could figure out who the girl was, but it also only took less than a minute later before she felt like taking it all back, swallowing it down, and then spitting out words righteous indignation and hot jealousy.

"She has pink hair, green eyes, and gets mad really easily," Sai explained.

He was no more than five words into the explanation before Ino pounded down on the counter with a fury. "It's Sakura, isn't it? Why is it that Sakura always gets the guys?" she demanded.

Sai stood very still, uncertain if the question was directed towards him or not. The words "bitchy" and "hag" flew to his mind as part of the answer, but he decided that if he were to voice these things he would probably end up being thrown through the window behind him… if his experiences with Sakura were any indication. There was also something about the way Ino lashed her blonde hair around like an angry horse ready to charge that made him hesitate before speaking.

"I mean… seriously." Ino ground out as she suddenly scribbled on something very hard on the paper before her on the counter. "Why is it that every guy is throwing himself at that ungrateful nose-drip while I'm never given a second glance?"

The pen in her grip suddenly snapped and ink flew all over the counter. At this Ino whirled around her seat in anger, and Sai took a half step back.

"I saw her walking outside earlier today. Sure, she was laughing and having a great time with her sensei, and you know what? I'm the one who gave Kakashi-sensei the advice to give her those orchids in the first place. And look at them now! Happy as can be." Ino fumed.

For Sai, every word that tumbled out of Ino's mouth was like the buzz of an angry hornet's nest: loud and confusing. He mentally recalled advice from the book of Social Interactions and ran through the options in his head: Agree with her? Comfort her? Offer advice? Or maybe… run away?

Then also tumbling around with the confusion was the news about Sakura and Kakashi. It would appear that he had been out-relationshiped by the master of relationship advice. Sai would admit that he never would have seen that development coming even if it smacked him across the face. There was no logical build up or connection to the relationship at all, which only led him to one conclusion on the matter… human beings were strange, strange creatures.

Meanwhile, as Sai pondered the sudden ousting as he role as suitor, Ino was picking up fine momentum in her tirade – huffing about as she tossed her hair back. "Do you even know what orchids mean in the language of flowers? It means… refined beauty. I was inadvertently giving Sakura a compliment by telling Kakashi-sensei which flower to buy for her. That was obvious! She should have gotten the hint, right? And does she even bother to drop in and say hello, or give a word of thanks to her hardworking friend? No. She does not."

Ino had her arms crossed and was tapping away with her foot in a fine temper now.

"I mean look at me!" Ino said gesturing to her body. "Do I look like someone who can be pushed aside? No. I'm an absolute bombshell. A blonde bombshell! There should be no reason why other guys – and my best friend – should ignore me."

Ino let out a heated sigh then chewed her lip, feeling that if she didn't calm down she would soon be down the road to self-combustion.

Sai took a seat in the green vinyl chair across from the counter, observing the passionate emotional response from the girl before him. It was to say the least, fascinating, to watch her build up and unravel so quickly. Even more impressive, she managed to make all her points in such quick succession. Sai wasn't sure how some people ever managed to unleash such a tidal wave of words like that when there were days he struggled to say even one thing at all.

"Sometimes what people do confuses me too," Sai admitted.

"Ha!" A short laugh was Ino's only response. She continued to tap her foot furiously away against the ground.

Sai let his fingers trail along the countertop. The spilled ink responded to his presence by shifting towards his hands. It was an unconscious act.

"There are days I wish someone would give me orders on how to act and behave," Sai said. "This whole business about impressing girls is extremely confusing."

"Believe me," Ino said, "if every guy would just listen to me about what girls wanted, the world would be much better place to live in."

Sai wasn't about to argue her point. Quite frankly, he didn't have much of a stance when it came viewpoints about the world. He was like a blank sheet of paper. Easy to mark, but also just as easy to crumple up and cast away. Though it seemed these days he was getting a better grasp on how society functioned… if not just very slowly and with great effort.

"Well," Ino said with a sigh, "do you still want to buy that flower?"

Sai moved his steady gaze from the crisp folded lines of origami cranes hanging over the countertop and back to Ino's face. His eyes were dark, and there was something almost charming about the way his lips moved up into a ghostly smile. He was taking in her every detail.

He leaned over the countertop.

"Has anyone ever told you how the shape of your eyes matches up with the curves of your face?" Sai asked. He would continue to describe every curve, and line, and shading, and color to Ino in great detail, and flatter Ino by telling her the way he would sketch her face until she melted under his words and told him exactly what to do next. Which would be asking her out to the Moon Viewing Festival later that night.

She would also tell him the exact place and time to meet (by the fountain, at 8:00 p.m.), which flowers to bring her (white roses), and exactly what to wear (a simple black robe)… and it would be the beginning of a wonderful, uncomplicated relationship.

Marketplace – 5:00 p.m.

"I don't know," Kakashi said. "I haven't worn robes in such a long time."

He stretched out his arm as he examined the stitching. In truth the formal robes were a good fit, and made him look something close to divinity. Sakura was not used to seeing her former sensei in anything other than his uniform, and she had never seen him so dressed up. She thought that with clothing like this, he could pass off as something far more glamorous and fashionable than a ninja.

"The dark blue looks good on you, sensei," Sakura said. She reached up to stroke the material on his arm. With his silver hair, he might have been mistaken for someone from a mythical fantasy. He could have been the hero from a tale of harrowing romance, heart-break, and adventure.

But if there was one thing she knew about Kakashi, it was that he never welcomed unwanted drama or adventure. Even if he had traveled across many lands, and possessed the ability to kill a man forty different ways with a single glance. To Sakura he always was… and always would be quite simply… Kakashi-sensei.

"What are you laughing at?" Kakashi asked. His face echoed Sakura's expression of amusement. He untied the belt to slip off the robes.

"Nothing," Sakura said honestly.

Kakashi had no response to that. He paid the shopkeeper from the cash in his wallet. The older woman bowed in acknowledgement and waved them farewell.

"You realize that I'm breaking tradition for you, right?" Kakashi said, after a long stretch of silence. They walked slowly, keeping pace down the road. "I usually don't dress up for these events."

Sakura kicked a rock on the ground. It bounced over to the curb.

"Then what made you change your mind this time?" she asked.

Kakashi directed his gaze to the sky. "I must be a kind-hearted man who enjoys the pleasure of giving his money away to poor vagabonds," he said, with a long-suffering sigh.

Sakura looped a hand through his arm. "You know what I think it is, sensei?"


"I think you like spending time with me," she said bluntly.

"Hm." Kakashi said then gently pushed her away. Sakura smiled and readjusted the red robes in her hands.

As they walked along the street side-by-side, Sakura had to temper the giddy feeling in her chest. She wondered if Kakashi's heart ever skipped the way her heart was racing now. She tried to imagine life from his perspective—as an elite ninja and jounin-sensei. Major life-altering events in Sakura's eyes might have contrarily been small blips on his radar. Did he remember the same events the same way Sakura remembered them? She tried to imagine the world from his view, from a taller standpoint, walking next to a younger student along the road, having made lustful remarks and touches to that student, and how hyper-aware she would have been of every eye—from every single passerby, whether well-intentioned or not—that might have slid over their passing forms.

Kakashi glanced back, and Sakura realized her steps had slowed down. Though disheartening thoughts crept into her consciousness, she also remained firmly awash in the sweet intoxication of being so close to Kakashi's proximity and breathing in his warm, comforting scent. Was it strange that standing next to her former sensei never affected her this way before?

"If you keep looking at me like that, I'll have no choice but to drag you away to the back room of the nearest store, or some dark alley," Kakashi said.

"I saw some convenient looking trees back there," Sakura replied, rising to his dare. She was only half-joking. Though if Kakashi were to really whisk her away, shove her against a tree and commence to have his way with her—Sakura would probably give away with easy compliance, dig her fingers into his shirt, and give those soft encouraging moans that sent him into feverish abandonment. Like a parched man getting a drink, after being denied water for so long.

For a long time Kakashi paused as if he were considering the offer. Then abruptly shook his head and moved forward again, dragging Sakura along with a single-minded determination.

"Tempting, but that would probably traumatize the children."

"How thoughtful of you," Sakura deadpanned.

Kakashi lowered his head and said in a murmur, "I think we gave the waitress yesterday enough of a fright."

Sakura could not fight off the hot flush burning her face at that. When that waitress discovered them in the bathroom Sakura was far from amused – and was more of a mess of flustered embarrassment. Though deep down, Sakura enjoyed how Kakashi was willing to explore the relationship and push it to more intrepid places. She also liked to believe that even with each new memory they forged, they acknowledged every moment from the past that cemented their lives together.

The Hospital (Inpatient Ward) – 8:00 p.m.

The first indication to Yamato that he was still alive was the feeling of linen against his face. The sound of the rushing waterfall was gone, and replaced by the roaring of blood in his ears. The room was dark – his vision was dark, and his arms and legs were heavy. Strangely though… he was not in pain. In fact, he could have been floating away on clouds. His spirit drifted high above as his mind spun around with dizzying lurches.

A loud beep went off to his right side, then there was the sound of a machine turning over. There was an twinge on his nose, but Yamato realized he could not move. Something was holding his body down as if his limbs were weighted. His eyes were dry and scratchy. When he opened them, there was only darkness. Darkness… nighttime. His mind made the connection. But his disorientation was still great, and when tried to speak his mouth was dry, dry, dry…


A dark shadow appeared. There was a ominous feeling to the figure, but the moment Yamato felt a plastic cup pressed to his lips he did not fight it, but instead took in the water into his mouth and let the drink ease down his throat.

It was cool heaven. Quickly followed by choking death. He coughed and sputtered. Yamato attempted to wipe the water from his mouth – only to come to the revelation he could not move his hands. Again. This time the thought stuck to his mind a little longer than the first time around.

"You're in a full-body cast. So don't bother trying. " The man above him said. He had a low and quiet voice. The sort of voice that was, perhaps, unused to talking.

Very slowly the shapes came into focus. Dark blobs sharpened until the captain could make distinction between the beds and the walls. The person who helped him had now taken a seat by the window, and was gazing out on the streets below. Moonlight was the only source of illumination in the room. Yamato thought he might have heard cheering and laughter outside. He wondered what sort of festivities might have been going on, but the thoughts slid and slipped around – growing outward and drifting away. Until he could no longer remember what he was thinking.

Just how long had he been out? He reached around for the string of thoughts, gathering them one by one.

Yamato was no longer face-down in the mud on some abandoned training field. That much he could establish. But he had to wonder if being stuck in a full body-cast and bound to a – bound to a… what was the word? Bed – bed was any better.

His suite-mate shifted in his seat. He was definitely a man… but young, with shoulders that smoothed down to a lean frame. He had no shirt on. Probably due to the endless array of bruises that covered his back and chest. The man also had a good number of bandages on his body. If Yamato had to take a guess, he would say that the he had been in a rather nasty fight recently.

In his morphine-induced state he did his best to remember where he recognized that spiky black hair from before, but any thoughts he threw around slid off the walls of his mind like paper without any glue.

Then he spoke again… and that voice… everything clicked into place, like rusty gears turning on their hinge.

"Some jounins said they found you half-dead on the training grounds." The man, Sasuke, muttered. He barely turned his head over his shoulder to say this.

Yamato opened his mouth in what would have been a laugh, but his throat was far too dry. What came out instead were the words, "No surprise."

Sasuke stood up again, and brought the water to Yamato's lips, tipped the drink down with surprising skill and patience. Yamato drank as much as possible before turning his head away.

Sasuke put the cup back on the stand. A long silence passed before he asked in a quiet voice, "What were you doing on that field?"

Yamato could not imagine why the Uchiha would invest so much sudden interest in him, especially here and now of all places, or give him water, or talk to him. Perhaps it was just a natural probing curiosity. Yamato could sense a keen intelligence in the young man before him. Or perhaps, like all people who had been isolated for long periods of times, loneliness had finally gotten the better of him.

"Sparring," Yamato rasped out. "With that… damn Hatake."

The raging lunatic. Yamato could feel his heart pick up at the thought. The heart monitor beside the bed exploded into a series of beeps of lines. For many nights to come now, the thought of the lethal Copy-nin would haunt his every dream.

With a few measured breaths, Yamato regained control of his heart beat, and the beeps evened back out to a steady rhythm.

Sasuke simply observed it all in silence.

"Kakashi put you through this?" Sasuke asked. Even in his flat voice, there was no hiding the mild surprise at the revelation.

"He's head-over-heels, crazy in love with that teammate of yours." Now more than ever, Yamato wished he could move so he could rub his tired eyes.

Sasuke meditated on this for a moment. "Are you talking about Sakura?"

Well he sure as hell wasn't talking Naruto, or Sai (that poor kid would never kid a date). In his mulling over Yamato forgot to respond, instead choosing to lull his head back in a daze. The ceiling tiles spun around like the slow blades of a windmill.

Sasuke hummed in thought then slowly rolled his neck and shoulders in a stretch. The moonlight played across his smooth skin until his bruises disappeared in the shadows. Then he pulled back with a wince, feeling the sting of some unseen cut.

"What happened to you?" The captain asked, as he closed his eyes. The spinning went away.

The Uchiha took his time to check the bandages on his sides before turning his attention back to the Anbu captain.

"I had a rough run-in with Naruto," he said coolly.

Yamato would have sympathized with Sasuke if he weren't in such a miserable state himself. In his humble opinion, being in a body-cast was far worse than getting away with a few cuts and bruises. Even if they were some of the darkest, nastiest looking bruises he had ever seen in his life.

"Women…" Sasuke muttered. A dark scowl crossed his face at the word.

For a brief moment Sasuke's dark eyes flicked to Yamato before turning away. Yamato could feel the heat of his gaze, and the deep burning questions the Uchiha kept locked up inside. As Yamato blinked his vision became a little sharper and gained clarity. He thought he could get lost in the inky darkness of the man before him. The world slipped in and out, and Yamato felt as high as a kite.

"Tsunade was here today," Sasuke said in a slow, measured voice. "She was not happy. The emergency tunnels and training grounds will need repair." His fingers tightened into a grip on his pants.

Yamato mumbled that it would be no problem with his bloodline ability, but he wasn't sure if he actually said it, or if he just thought the words to himself. Nonetheless, Sasuke turned away as he took a seat at the side of the bed, gazing out into the streets. The sharp lines of his profile were meditative in the moonlight. Perhaps he already spent many nights like this. Just sitting, and thinking, and gazing out the window. A long moment passed in silence.

"Are you hungry?" Sasuke asked, at last. He turned his attention back to Yamato and slowly reached for a bowl from the bedside. "I didn't eat my food."

Yamato was not hungry, but he did not protest when the Uchiha moved over and gently pried open his mouth to ladle a spoonful of soup down his throat. It was rich, but cold. And his stomach turned with hunger with the first taste, although the morphine made every part of his body feel like a far off thing. It was like he was in his body, but not in his body, and was watching everything before him as a distant spectator.

"Thank you." Yamato said, several spoonfuls later when he found that he could take no more. He was dozing off, and it was difficult to keep his mind from slipping away. Somewhere above him Sasuke put the bowl down and left Yamato's line of sight. A moment later there was the sound of the blinds closing… then complete darkness. The rustle of sheets. The quiet sound of breathing. Yamato also chased the elusive dreamland, feeling his body sink into the clouds. It would be a long road to recovery.

By the River – 10:00 p.m.

The moon rose on the horizon. A silver curve so round and full, and dazzling in its splendor that the silver stardust could barely compare to its glowing light. The sky was of the richest and darkest blue. A wide inky canvas stretched across all major boundaries of vision, and covered the village in majestic night.

In the lower half of the world the village river swathed and held the dotting of small paper boats. At their heart, each folded creation held the small flickering flame of a candle and the wish of the child who set it into the water. The candles made bright illuminations on the glassy surface of the river as they bobbed away. On the shore the marketplace was alive with movement and laughter as civilians and shinobi alike took time off to enjoy the most cherished festival of the year.

The sweet smell of sizzling meat and delectable treats wafted far off into the night air. Bright streamers and lanterns decorated the rooftops, and formed the only source of light in the dark. A majority of the children who ran back and forth across the streets and by the river shore found new entertainment in the sparklers handed out by the vendors. The adults gathered and drank their alcohol. Some off-note singing could already be heard in the early hours of the night. The loudest of which came from a chesty blonde woman who was most respectfully known as the Hokage on any other given day.

On the opposite shore, celebration of the festival took on a more muted atmosphere. There were tall trees on this side of the river spaced along a grassy field. Each branch was laden with heavy flowers, and curved overhead with natural beauty. The white blossoms of the trees released a sweet and heady sent that could only be washed away by the warm breeze of the night. Among the grass, glowing fireflies flickered in and out of sight – and seemingly danced in celebration of the festivity in the air. The crickets chirped in quiet repose.

In the darkness hid a young couple. They sat on a low branch of one of the flowering trees – a thick branch so weighted down by the heft of blossoms that it swept low and nearly touch the ground. Growing out like this every year made it so the branch curved down, and created a perfect seat for this night.

They wore traditional robes – and could have been figures from a painting. The young woman was draped a red patterned robe that went well with her striking pink hair. The tall man had hair that nearly burned as silver as the moon, and wore darker robes that hung well on his elegant but well built frame. He held one arm across the woman's shoulder and held her close in a gentle embrace. There was a refined look to the clean cut lines of their faces as they gazed out at the distant moon and shore.

Sakura was filled with so much excitement and contentment she thought she could burst as the two warring emotions fought for domination within her body. She snuggled close to Kakashi, listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat even as she felt the erratic pace of her heart and the sound of blood rushing through her ears. What she felt now wasn't the same nervous jitters she usually associated with the wave of energy going through her system. The only thing she could pin the feeling down to was the simple pleasure of being awake and alive, and being closest to the one person in existence she enjoyed most.

Kakashi glanced down, a small lazy grin crossing his face. He wore no mask tonight. Which was just as well since no one could see them in their quiet, hidden spot across the shore. Sakura had already acquainted herself quite well with Kakashi's maskless mouth and jaw line earlier that night – ogling at him at every given moment. Whenever Kakashi would catch her in the act he would simply pause, turn his full face towards her, and offer a handsome smile. It filled him with endless amusement to watch the blush cover Sakura's cheek each time.

Sakura felt the heat rise to her cheeks as she was caught in the act again. She had seen her sensei without his mask many times before and thought that she had long outgrown this reaction to his face. When healing an injury, or when he would casually bring down his mask to eat… it was no longer a novel experience. In fact there were moments when she felt nothing but cool regard in the past as the action became less of an event, and more of an natural action that needed to happen to fulfill some necessities in life. But now for some reason she couldn't stop the small pleasant jolt that took her by surprise whenever her eyes would happen to cross Kakashi's smile, and inevitably… that blush would start up all over again.

"Having a good time?" Kakashi asked, lips tugging upward.

"Yes," Sakura said. "I'm very happy." She reached for his hand and tightened her fingers in a warm grip. There was no other way to describe the feeling.

There was no way to describe how Kakashi's smiles made her feel as if she had taken a drink of deep heady wine, or sparkling champagne. The emotion switched between being strong and potent, then fizzling and incandescent. It was a contrasting force of nature – like fragile bubbles rising to the surface or a loud roar trapped inside. The type that could rise up and tear you down unless it was let out, or build up and bring strength and power. It was strong, relentless and there were some moments it felt so powerful Sakura thought it could bring her down to her knees and make her cry from sadness, happiness, frustration, and joy. The feeling had no name. At least not one that she could bring herself to say out loud. She only understood that the most telling part of this emotion was that it burned down clean, and left a lingering presence. Until all was made transparent.

Kakashi needed no explanation. He already knew the feeling. Then, simply because he could - he demonstrated this to her by pulling her in for a long and lasting kiss.




End Game