A/N: I am going to be upfront about this. This first chapter is purposefully misleading; the story as a whole is not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. It will not be a simple, easy read. It will be complicated and may make you uncomfortable at times. I don't really care, to be honest. I like dealing with some of the harsh realities that are ignored in the manga. If you are not current with the manga at least to chapter 452, you probably don't want to read this. Huge spoilers. Also, this chapter is atypically short. The rest will be longer, most likely.

If you've read anything else of mine you know that I can have a sharp tongue. Idiots beware.

Thanks again to my favourite faggots Jetslinger, Mikeytron, and Deedee, even the one that isn't, technically. I know I bug the shit out of you with my completely unhealthy obsessions.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kakashi spotted a pink and red blur bobbing towards him through the crowded marketplace. Glancing behind him to his three following ANBU subordinates, he vaguely contemplated making an escape attempt. However, when he heard a thunderous voice yell his name, he knew it was too late and ceased the futile exercise of moving away from her.

"Kaka-sensei!" the woman screamed, obviously irate.

He sighed, knowing that what was to come was now unavoidable and would be extremely tiresome. "Stand back," he commanded his ANBU team softly. He massaged his temples in a vain attempt to ease the raging headache that was undoubtedly about to become exponentially worse. "Stay away from her fists, will you? The last thing I need is teammates with broken bones. Wouldn't that be perfect…." he grumbled.

"Kaka-sensei!" she called again as she neared, fighting the throng. When she finally reached him, she planted her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes dangerously at him.

"Sakura-chan!" Kakashi greeted with false warmth, nervously reaching up to scratch the back of his head. "My, don't you look lovely today, if I may –"

"I look like shit!" she growled. He would never be stupid enough to say it out loud, but she did look a little disheveled this morning. The bags he'd been noticing under her eyes lately were particularly pronounced just now, which didn't help. "I have a hangover and you skipped out on the bill. Again! I should have known. You never change, Kakashi-sensei! Next time Sai wants to learn what it is to be drunk, remind me not to bring you along, you perverted old man!" She briefly paused her loudly-pitched tirade in order to shoot him a particularly venomous glare. "Did you know that that stupid bartender wouldn't let us leave until someone paid your tab?"

Kakashi laughed uneasily and backed away slightly, his eye still giving the impression of a fake smile. "Now, Sakura-chan, don't you think it's only nice to treat your lovable captain every once in awhile?"

He quickly realized he'd said the wrong thing in his effort to placate her as she screeched, "Every once in awhile? Do you even realize how long that tab had been running? You do this all the time! I could kill you!"

"Don't be so hasty…" he protested weakly, but she ignored him in favour of continuing her diatribe.

"You are the single stingiest, laziest, most infuriating man I have ever –"she began, but fell silent abruptly as she was interrupted by sounds of poorly stifled giggling. Frowning, she looked around to locate the source. When she realized the culprits were the three masked ANBU standing off to the side, she blanched. "You're Kakashi's ANBU – shit," she cursed, turning to him with doe-eyes. "I'm really sorry about this. I didn't know they were – I swear –"

Kakashi grinned underneath his cloth mask. "Don't worry about it, Sakura-chan. I'm sure you can make it up to me later!"

Her eyes immediately lost their remorseful look as they flashed with the sudden return of anger. "Don't you even try it! You owe me money this time, and I mean it, Kaka-sensei. I made a bet with Naruto that you'll be on time for our next mission. Of course he took it, because you're never on time. If you do this, I'll call it even. Deal?"

He sighed again, suddenly serious. "Actually, about that… We need to talk a bit."

She stiffened, immediately sensing his change in demeanor. He moved closer to her and turned away from his ANBU team in an effort to lend a little more privacy to this ridiculously public debacle. He'd rather not do this here, with an audience. He'd rather not do this at all, actually, but now that she was right in front of him, he couldn't tell himself that he didn't have the time to seek her out before he left.

"Sakura, I was just assigned an ANBU mission. I'm leaving."

"What? Right now?" She blinked, confused. "Well, that's okay. It's just a quick one, right? You remember the mission in three days, of course."

"I'm not sure I'll be back in time. This is an important mission."

"Important? How could it be more important than –" With a fleeting glance towards the three ANBU, she cut herself off. He knew what she would have said anyway.

"It's not more important, but it must be done, and as quickly as possible." Staring into his one exposed eye, she saw the gravity in it and nodded resignedly.

"Naruto won't like it very much, but we'll be all right with Yamato-taichou."

Suddenly he found that he couldn't quite meet her eyes. "Sakura…" She heard the hesitancy in his voice and looked up at him sharply. "His mission has been extended. Hokage-sama told me that he definitely will not be back for at least another week."

She inhaled harshly and he knew that she would immediately grasp the implications. Her eyes were wide and he could see the beginnings of panic stirring in their green depths. "But – He – We must go. There is no option. This is the first real lead we've had in awhile. Naruto won't let it pass us by. I won't let it pass us by."

He nodded. He knew that no matter what, the Hokage wouldn't pull Team Kakashi from this mission, though he had not explicitly said so. There was an unspoken understanding between them all that even if the team was officially barred from leaving the village, both Sakura and Naruto would follow any whispers of Sasuke, no matter how insubstantial, to the ends of the earth – even if it meant becoming missing-nin just like their erstwhile teammate. Danzou may mistrust everyone who had been close to his predecessor, especially Team 7, but he simply could not risk losing such high profile ninja to ignominy. Naruto in particular had to be catered to at least somewhat in order for Danzou to retain his public image.

That doesn't mean he can't make our lives miserable in less obvious ways, mused Kakashi drily. This ANBU mission may be imperative to maintaining Suna-Konoha relations, but he was no under no delusions that his team was the only team suitable for the job. Danzou had extended Yamato's mission and assigned this task to Kakashi's team in a deliberate attempt to force Sakura, Naruto, and Sai to withdraw. Kakashi, however, knew that the ploy would fail.

Sakura, whose head had been downturned in thought, turned her doleful eyes towards him once again. "Perhaps I should…." She looked away briefly, obviously uncomfortable with what she was about to say. "I could maybe ask Hokage-sama to temporarily reassign Sai."

"Sakura," he began, tone slightly reproachful.

"It's dangerous enough without Yamato-taichou with us, but without you both…. I think we both know the likely outcomes to this situation and none of them are good. I don't know if I can ask Sai to –"

"Sakura," Kakashi interrupted, voice more harsh than usual. "Do not make the mistake of assuming that you are the only one in this situation willing to sacrifice your life that way." Her mouth dropped opened in surprise as he continued. "Sai has more invested in this than you realize, and besides – you know this matter is of significance to Konoha. He would not want you to make that decision for him." Making such a request could also place the Root member in a sticky situation with the Hokage. Spies mistrusted by their peers were not very useful, after all. Kakashi could not risk reminding Sakura of this aloud, so he locked her vivid eyes with his own and willed her to understand.

Staring back at him, she nodded slowly. "You're right," she whispered quietly, blinking away the beginnings of tears.

Hesitantly, he reached out and put a heavy hand on her shoulder. "I might make it back," he offered, knowing he was probably wrong to give her hope but unable to stop himself. "I'll try."

She nodded and gave him a watery smile. "It will be okay, really. I don't know why I got so upset." He knew that she didn't really mean it and that the empty gesture was for his sake alone, but he was appreciative of it anyway.

They always played this game, helpless against the heavy torrents of despair that threatened to overtake their lives at every juncture.

"Taichou," a confused-sounding voice interjected from behind him. "Sorry to interrupt, but we really should get going…."

"Damn," he swore, letting his arm drop back to his side.

"I'll see you in three days," she said quickly, uncomfortably. He nodded and turned to walk back towards his ANBU squad.

"Kakashi…" she called softly, and he paused. "Don't let me lose my bet."

He kept moving. "We'll have to wait and see exactly how much you take after that master of yours."

Just as he reached the rest of his squad, he heard one last thing fall from her lips. "Be safe," she whispered, her concern for him evident.

Still with his back to her, he raised his hand in his traditional gesture. When he felt her head off in the opposite direction, he nodded to his squad. "Let's move."

They jumped to the rooftops and made their way to the village gate with haste. Kakashi could feel the unusual heaviness of the silence and knew without a doubt that the other three were barely withholding their questions.

Finally, the one sporting a cat-faced mask could no longer take it. "Captain," she ventured, but not without hesitation. "If you don't mind me asking, who was that?"

"I do mind, actually. I understand your curiosity, but I don't like to mix my personal life with my professional life. Sorry," he said, though he felt no remorse. He knew they would probably see it as cold, but if he gave one answer it would lead only to more questions. There was no way he was going to discuss his ultimate failure as a teacher with them or anyone else.

"Personal life?" another could not stop himself from protesting. "She spoke of a mission, so she's obviously some sort of team—" The man with a tiger mask found his unwelcome observation cut off by a painful elbow to the ribs from his bird-masked fourth squad member. "Sorry," Tiger grumbled.

Kakashi chose not to respond, instead settling his own wolf mask into place. This was going to be a tough mission.